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Money, politics, debate over crime victims: What's stalling prison reforms in Olympia

A solitary confinement cell is pictured, with a small rectangular window and a light, as well as a small desk to the right, and a toilet/sink combination near the bottom left side of the frame.
Provided photo
Washington Department of Corrections
A solitary confinement cell at Monroe Correctional Complex in Monroe, Washington.

Prison reforms were among the many issues considered by lawmakers in Olympia this year. But, once again, measures aimed at resentencing and solitary confinement ended up on the cutting room floor.

Making changes to the state’s incarceration system has been a longstanding priority for progressive Democrats, and there have been plenty of changes in recent years. Still, an increasingly active group of advocates want to see more substantial changes to prison conditions, and sentences, to make the system more racially equitable. But some of this year’s proposals didn’t become law, despite a Democratic majority in the Legislature.

So what happened when those ideas came up in Olympia?

Lawmakers who back resentencing reforms say three main things loomed over them this session: money, election politics, and debates over public safety and victims. And while legislators also had the opportunity to enact new rules around solitary confinement this session, the issue never got a hearing.

Why lawmakers left resentencing behind

The Legislature decided last year that newly convicted adults can no longer have their sentences lengthened for crimes they committed as kids. But the policy that passed in 2023 stripped out provisions for people already in prison, like Travis ComesLast, a member of the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes who is incarcerated at Airway Heights Correction Center near Spokane.

A measure introduced this year, House Bill 2065, would have given ComesLast and incarcerated people like him an opportunity to get their sentence reduced.

ComesLast has been in prison for nearly three decades after he shot and killed a man. A third of his sentence – 17 years of it – was tacked on for robberies he was involved in as a teenager.

ComesLast was one of several incarcerated people in Washington who testified on this year’s bill remotely from prison.

“I felt like I had the weight of the world on my shoulders,” ComesLast said. “Going in there I was just hoping to have my words be impactful.”

But late in the session, senators left the bill behind at a cutoff deadline. No vote. No explanation. It was over.

"I was heartbroken – simply put, it was heartbreaking to get that news," ComesLast said.

Republicans didn’t support the bill, and it turned out that many Democrats had concerns too.

Part of the concern, according to Sen. Noel Frame (D-Seattle), was that lawmakers didn’t have enough clarity on how much this year’s bill would cost.

"Something between the range of a misunderstanding to a disagreement about the data," Frame said.

At first, the price tag of the bill was less than half a million dollars. But the final cost estimate ballooned to almost $9 million.

“And in a supplemental budget year, that was a real problem,” Frame said.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, the change under HB 2065 could affect up to around 1,400 people in state prisons. Lawmakers put funding in the state budget requiring the Department of Corrections to gather more data on whom it would affect and how much it would cost. But Gov. Jay Inslee cut that out, so lawmakers will have to get answers another way.

In his veto letter, Inslee said the department doesn't have the legal expertise or access to court records to do that analysis. Inslee's letter also said that lawmakers didn't provide enough time or money for the department to do that work.

Even then, resentencing is a complex and sensitive issue. People in Washington’s prisons have limited options to make their case for an earlier release – even after they’ve spent decades behind bars.

Supporters of resentencing reforms say they’re long overdue, to right the wrongs of racist prison policies. The Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians – a collection of 57 tribes in the region – signed a resolution last year calling on Washington lawmakers to pass HB 2065, noting that the juvenile points system has had an especially acute impact on tribal nations across the state. They say about 40% of people in Washington’s prisons whose sentences were made longer because of juvenile crimes are from tribes across the region.

But opponents of the change argue that the process of resentencing could retraumatize survivors of crimes.

“We spend a lot of time with crime victims and it is incredibly, incredibly painful,” said Russell Brown, executive director for the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, at a hearing for HB 2065 in January. “It’s very, very difficult on the victims of crimes when this resentencing process happens.”

Frame says lawmakers made a lot of progress this session figuring out how victims' needs fit into the resentencing picture. But she also says arguments made on behalf of victims can often be oversimplified or misinformed.

“They have their own stories, and the concepts that victims and perpetrators are a binary and those two groups never touch one another is false,” Frame said.

Rep. Tarra Simmons (D-Bremerton) sponsored another resentencing bill that died this year, House Bill 2001. It would have given judges the authority to initiate the review of certain prisoners’ long sentences. Simmons said resentencing reform is a polarizing topic already – even more so in an election year.

“It’s very easy to weaponize sensible criminal justice reform in re-election campaigns,” she said. Simmons, the first formerly incarcerated lawmaker in Washington, was targeted in political campaigns before she ran for office.

Simmons said that debates about policing this session overshadowed the resentencing conversation too. The Legislature has gone back and forth on issues like police accountability, oversight and car chases for several years now. A voter initiative to roll back certain state limits on police car chases took up a significant chunk of time in Olympia this year, and the Legislature ultimately enacted that proposal into law.

Solitary reform fizzles

Solitary confinement didn’t get as much attention as resentencing did this year. A bill that would have put rules around the use of solitary stalled this session before it ever got a public hearing.

The legislation, House Bill 1087, would have outlined specific restrictions on when a person could be placed in solitary confinement, and required the department to “maximize” the amount of time a person in solitary could spend outside of their cell participating in programs and activities.

The bill was proposed in 2023 and got a hearing then, but it took on renewed importance for advocates this year, after Washington’s Department of Corrections released a plan last fall outlining a $280 million strategy to reduce the use of solitary confinement by 90% over a five-year span.

Around 680 people were in solitary at the start of last year, according to the department’s plan.

Corrections officials asked for $18 million dollars this year to kickstart the department’s latest plan. The Legislature ultimately provided just under $3 million.

Deputy Secretary of Corrections Sean Murphy says that wasn’t a total surprise during a short session when lawmakers are typically hesitant to make major changes to state spending.

“We’ll come back to the table and ask for somewhere around between $30 and 40 million next year to try and get this policy initiative off the ground and to continue moving,” Murphy said.

Murphy also said funding approved this year will pay for more staff at one of the state’s prisons – the department has targeted solitary reduction at two of the state’s other prisons already.

Still, reducing solitary confinement has been a longstanding priority in Washington’s prison system. And advocates say the department can take steps to reduce the use of solitary without so much additional funding. Some worry that there’s nothing requiring the department to meet its goals after years of what they say has been slow progress on the issue.

“I think our concern is that DOC will continue to ask for money with no strings attached to fund a plan that has no guarantee or teeth,” said Rachel Seevers from Disability Rights Washington, which advocates for people with disabilities who are incarcerated.

The funding lawmakers did set aside for solitary reforms didn’t come with many specific strings attached – the money earmarked in the state budget for solitary reform says it must be used for “increasing correctional staffing, incorporating mental health training, and implementing change to restrictive housing environments.”

Governor Inslee also vetoed part of the state budget that required a report on ending solitary confinement.

Ultimately, some advocates for these reforms are more hopeful than others about their future outlook – it could be harder to implement more resentencing changes the longer lawmakers wait. But the Legislature will look a lot different in 2025, after a major election cycle. Lawmakers will also dig deeper into the budget next session, and will have more time to work out policy questions.

Back at Airway Heights, Travis ComesLast says he’s still holding out hope.

“Any change don’t come without struggle – good or bad,” he said.

And he says change feels closer now than it ever has before.

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.