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Behind bars and then a bill: WA prisoner leads effort on 'second chance' legislation

Four people stand together and softly smile for a photo in front of a festive background with blue sky and palm tree fronds visible
Provided Photo
Charles Longshore, pictured center left, poses for a photo with his sister and nieces during a visit earlier this fall.

Charles Longshore is a legal expert and a community organizer. And he's been in prison for more than a decade.

"My only mission now is to do good for those around me," he said.

Currently incarcerated at a prison just north of Olympia, Longshore says he's doing what he can to make up for the mistakes of his past, after he was convicted for killing two people in 2012. He's spent the past several years inside changing his life: building community, pursuing education opportunities, and supporting other incarcerated men – because he's also focused on the future.

As part of his mission to do good, Longshore wrote a bill for the Legislature to consider during the upcoming 2024 session. Over the past several months, Longshore has spent countless hours – and thousands of dollars of his own money – making phone calls and sending messages to dozens of advocacy organizations and people, building a coalition of supporters around the bill.

He calls it the Judicial Discretion Act. The bill would give judges the chance to review long or life prison sentences – and possibly shorten them.

"If we can make this happen, we can fix a big problem with a little bill," he says.

The problem is that people who have spent years rehabilitating themselves in prison have limited or no options to make their case for an earlier release, even if they were given a long sentence under laws that no longer exist. Longshore has worked with other incarcerated men to help get their cases reviewed, and he’s run into the issue time and time again. It's part of why he was inspired to write the bill.

The issue stems from the late '80s and '90s, when Washington policymakers put various laws on the books to make prison sentences longer, as part of efforts to "deter crime." A 2020 report for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, written by experts at the University of Washington, details the policies and impact of those efforts.

Essentially, people convicted of crimes have had time added to their sentences based on their criminal history, for using a weapon, and in some cases, if they went to trial instead of taking a plea deal. Through the 1984 Sentencing Reform Act, the state also abolished the option for many prisoners to seek parole.

"It meant that people went away for very long sentences with no mechanism for review based on their rehabilitation," said Jennifer Smith, with the Seattle Clemency Project.

Decades after those policies were passed, Smith says research has shown that those long sentences have had an especially acute impact on Black and Indigenous peoples, and that longer sentences haven't really played a role in reducing crime.

In recent years, Washington has taken steps to undo some of those policies, as leaders shift the state away from handing down longer and life sentences. But relief for people who are already in prison remains in short supply, something Smith says should change.

"We need to repair from that extreme period in our history, and to do that you need to go into the prisons and look at who has been there for 10, 15, 20, 30, or even 40 years and start to assess their situation," Smith said.

There has been some progress. A combination of recent court decisions and state policy changes have created new pathways for resentencing, including through the Legislature's recent handling of drug possession penalties. A change lawmakers made in 2020 allows prosecutors to initiate reviews of long sentences, but it hasn't been very effective.

"Judges should be given the opportunity to review these petitions and under certain circumstances provide resentencings," said King County Superior Court Judge Maureen McKee, speaking to an advisory committee for the state's Office of Public Defense in mid-December.

McKee told the committee that Longshore's bill would be a cost-effective way to reduce the prison population, and that giving judges the authority to review sentences could help people who are ready to be released get back into their communities.

Part of the bill would also direct some financial savings from resentencing toward programs and services that support survivors of crimes. Longshore says that's a key part to the bill. Not only to do what's right, but to give it a fighting chance to survive the legislative process.

The bill has already been filed for consideration in the upcoming legislative session, sponsored by Rep. Tarra Simmons (D-Bremerton), the state's first formerly incarcerated lawmaker. Longshore hopes it'll pass this year, but he knows these things can take time.

"It's rare that a bill ever just goes on the first round, most bills take at least four years to pass – if they ever do," he said.

But the most important thing, he says, is having faith that it can happen – and he's in it for the long haul.

Jeanie Lindsay is a radio reporter based in Olympia who covers the Washington state government beat for the Northwest News Network, the Pacific Northwest's regional collaboration of NPR stations.