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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

As Washington Prisons Crowd, Could Some 'Lifers' Get A Second Look?

Austin Jenkins
Northwest News Network

Stevan Dozier's crimes were violent purse snatchings. The final time, he hit his 69-year old victim in the face, knocked her to the ground and stole her wallet. As a result, Dozier was one of the first to be sentenced under the voter-approved "three strikes" law back in 1994.

Today, Washington prisons are bulging. There are some 250 Washington inmates serving life without parole under three strikes.

Dozier expected punishment, but he said, “I just didn’t believe that it was right for a person to do life without parole for a second-degree robbery.”

A reformed man

For the first couple of years, Dozier just did his time. And then one morning, he woke up at the state penitentiary in Walla Walla and had a realization.

“It was snowing outside and I was like, 'Damn, it’s you that put you here and if you’re ever given a chance again to get into society then you want to be ready,'" Dozier said. "And that’s when I started doing things to change myself.”

Dozier never could have imagined that 12 years later his transformation in prison would earn him a most unexpected ally.

In 2008, King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg testified on Dozier’s behalf before Washington’s Clemency and Pardons Board. “This is a man who we have sent to the reformatory who I think has become reformed,” he said.

Satterberg was impressed with Dozier’s record in prison. But there was something bigger at stake for him. He told the board that at that time in King County, someone like Dozier wouldn’t be charged with a third strike. Satterberg asked the Clemency Board to recommend to then-Governor Chris Gregoire that she grant Dozier clemency. If she did, she would become the first governor in the nation to release a three-strikes offender.

Satterberg recalled the stakes were very high. He said, “I could feel the political risk that she felt.”

Dozier was one of the few to win clemency. Today he’s a drug and alcohol counselor working with youth in Seattle. But Dozier still thinks about some of those he left behind in prison -- men he thinks also deserve a second look.

“There are other lifers, but due to the heinous nature of their crimes, society is going to have a hard time with releasing them," he said. "But they are people who are no longer the danger they were 30 or 40 years ago. And at what point is enough, enough?”

Rare and unpredictable

Satterberg wondered if there might there be a less politically fraught and more systematic way to review lengthy prison sentences in Washington state. And not just the three-strikes cases.

“As we have an aging demographic in prison and we’re going to want to avoid some of the costs of having geriatric prisons, I think more and more people are going to want to have their sentences looked at," Satterberg said. "And I don’t think that we have the infrastructure in place to really do that now.”

That infrastructure is Washington’s clemency system. Clemency became the safety valve after Washington abolished parole 30 years ago. But the two are very different animals.

Since it’s the governor who makes the final call, clemency involves the unpredictable world of politics. Furthermore, clemency is reserved for “extraordinary” circumstances only.

The Portland-based attorney who represented Dozier in his clemency petition, Jeff Ellis, said, “It really is a very rare process.” Ellis added that there are only a handful of lawyers in Washington who even do that kind of work.

And without a lawyer, “It’s a hard road to do yourself," he said. "Even by the most skilled jailhouse lawyer.”

Revisiting clemency

Satterberg and Ellis weren’t the only ones who voiced concerns about the limitations of Washington’s governor-appointed, citizen-led clemency process -- especially when it came to three-strikes.

Former clemency board member and retired police chief John Turner said, “I think given the number of three-strikers now, the time has come frankly to take a review of that.”

In 2011, Turner joined Satterberg in support of legislation to give a small group of Washington three-strikes offenders automatic review -- those who’d served at least 15 years and whose crimes were the least serious felonies under the law.

But not everyone supported the idea. Among the opponents was former Republican gubernatorial candidate and talk show host John Carlson. He was the prime sponsor of Washington’s three-strikes law.

“I supported Stevan Dozier’s clemency," Carlson said. "I believe sometimes it is deserved.”

But Carlson told a panel of lawmakers he opposed changing the law to take the governor out of the equation.

“When we wrote three-strikes-you’re-out, we wanted somebody who was accountable to the people to be accountable for the decision they made in granting clemency,” he explained.

That view is shared by Kitsap County Prosecutor Russ Hauge.

“I don’t know that we need to take the politics out of it, because we are talking about a risk," he said. "We are because we are talking about a risk. We’re talking about someone who did severe damage to the community.”

Roughly a third of three-strikes offenders are locked up for rapes, kidnappings, child molestations or murders. The rest earned their third strike for crimes like robbery and assault.

In the end, the proposal to automatically review the lowest-level three-strikes cases didn’t go anywhere.

Some states are starting to take a second look at aging inmates. And in Washington, there are those who would like to see the clemency board beefed up with more staff, a bigger budget and perhaps a more quasi-judicial role.

In the meantime, Satterberg continues to support clemency petitions.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."