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Originally published January 23, 2013 at 3:37 PM | Page modified January 23, 2013 at 3:37 PM

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Editorial: Time to reform state’s ‘three strikes’ law

Some prisoners are being unreasonably held under Washington’s “three strikes” law.

Seattle Times Editorial

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IN her last hours in office last week, Gov. Chris Gregoire issued six pardons and commuted the sentences of four other prisoners. Washington’s criminal-justice system requires more such actions, and a reform of the state’s “three strikes” law.

The law has a list of crimes. The third conviction from the list brings prison for life, a sentence that can be commuted only by the governor.

The law was passed by initiative 20 years ago after much public debate. Opponents said it was wrong to list second-degree robbery and second-degree assault, which were not worth a life sentence. They also said the law would result in a lot of geriatric prisoners confined at public expense.

The critics were right on both counts. But in 1993, crime was at its worst in 60 years. Voters were fed up. More than 75 percent voted yes. The problems could be dealt with later.

Later is now.

About 330 prisoners are serving life sentences under Washington’s “three strikes” law. Most of them are right where they should be. But some should have their cases reviewed for possible release.

State Sen. Adam Kline, D-Seattle, who has followed this issue for years, is preparing a bill to do that. The bill is cautious and would apply only to those with second-degree robbery or second-degree assault as all three strikes. The bill would allow these lesser offenders to ask the state’s Indeterminate Sentence Review Board for parole after serving 15 years.

This approach makes sense — and has the support of King County’s Republican prosecutor, Dan Satterberg.

“It doesn’t save that much money,” Satterberg says, because the number of prisoners isn’t that great. “But it is in the interest of justice not to throw away the key on those who committed a robbery in their 20s and who are now in their 40s.”

Satterberg said prosecutors have learned to use the “three strikes” law in a more reasonable way, avoiding charges of second-degree robbery and second-degree assault as a third strike. But there was a time when they didn’t do this, so there is a group of prisoners with life sentences, many of them from the ’90s, who probably ought not still be in prison.

A handful may receive pardons, but the process is long and iffy. John Ray Stewart, a three-striker pardoned by Gregoire last week, was unanimously recommended for pardon by the Clemency and Pardons Board in 2007.

Satterberg recommended another three-striker for pardon, Joseph Wharton, all of whose crimes had been nonviolent. Like Stewart, Wharton had the unanimous support from the Clemency and Pardons Board, which heard his case Dec. 7. But, Satterberg said, “the clock ran out” when Gregoire’s term ended Wednesday.

Pardoning prisoners is not something incoming governors think about much. There is little political gain in it and much risk. The result is a system of clemency that can be unfair to prisoners and, says Satterberg, “in some ways is unfair to the governor.”

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