If you are accused of any crime in the state of Washington, you should understand precisely what criminal penalties you may be facing, and you should also know the difference between parole and probation. Many people in Washington may not realize that, in the strictest legal sense, there is no such thing as parole in this state.

Washington is now one of only fourteen states that have abolished parole, and the conditional release of inmates in this state before their prison terms are complete is severely restricted. Yet several thousand prisoners in Washington potentially could qualify if parole were reinstated. Should some of those inmates have an opportunity for freedom?

The parole system for prison inmates was abolished in the state of Washington back in the 1980s. For most of the 20th century, the state had operated an active parole system, and convicted offenders served “indeterminate” sentences. Under that arrangement, judges in Washington would impose a maximum sentence on a convicted offender, and the offender could become eligible for a possible parole after a specified portion of that maximum sentence had been served.

However, in 1981, the Washington State Legislature approved the Sentencing Reform Act, which established “determinate” sentences rather than indeterminate sentences for criminal convictions in this state. The Sentencing Reform Act made it possible to eliminate parole in Washington, and the state’s parole board was finally dissolved in 1984. In its place, the Indeterminate Sentences Review Board (ISRB) was established.

The ISRB, a part of the Washington State Department of Corrections, reviews these types of convictions:

– convictions for crimes committed prior to 1984
– convictions for certain sex crimes committed since September 2001
– cases where juveniles received adult convictions

WHAT IS THE ROLE OF THE CLEMENCY & PARDONS BOARD?

Almost none of the inmates who are now serving long-term sentences in our state fall into one of these categories, which means that nearly three thousand Washington prison inmates have almost no chance for an early release.

Their only slim hope is the Washington State Clemency & Pardons Board, which hears no more than two or three dozen cases a year and even then rarely grants clemency. For now in the state of Washington, according to King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg, “Life means life.”

Since the abolition of parole in Washington in 1984, the number of prison inmates in the state has approximately doubled. A study conducted back in 2015 by a team of researchers at the University of Washington estimated that about 1,400 of those inmates currently have no path whatsoever to an early release. Disturbingly, while African-Americans comprise barely four percent of Washington’s general population, they account for 28 percent of the inmates serving life in this state with no chance of parole.

This year, the Washington State Legislature once again had – and once again missed – a chance to reform the system and create a path to early release for inmates who have served two decades or more in a state prison. HB 1789 and its companion bill, SB 5600, would have created not a “parole board” but a “community review board” comprised of community leaders, mental health professionals, prosecutors, and law enforcement officials who would review the cases of inmates requesting early release. Like earlier attempts to create a path to early release for Washington’s long-term inmates, the proposal failed to gather adequate support from the state’s lawmakers.

WHY ARE SO MANY INSISTING ON REFORM REGARDING PAROLE?

Yet many in our state now insist that creating some type of legal mechanism for the early release of particular inmates is increasingly imperative. According to experienced Seattle criminal defense lawyer Kevin Trombold, “A person is not defined by the worst thing they ever did. Deciding what should happen to someone for the rest of their life in one brief sentencing hearing is madness. Every Friday at the King County Courthouse, judges spend 15 minutes or so per defendant. They are handcuffed and taken to the jail and hauled out on the ‘chain’ to the Department of Corrections. It’s a machine.”

Tom McBride, speaking for the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, is not as certain that the system is broken. McBride claims that the Clemency & Pardons Board has been evaluating and releasing an increasing number of long-term inmates every year, and he believes that an expansion of the existing Clemency & Pardons Board is the best way forward for those who are seeking parole reform in our state. But not all Washington prosecutors agree, and several spoke in support of HB 1789 and SB 5600 earlier this year.

In the U.S. legal system, anyone who is accused of committing a crime is innocent unless and until the state proves that person is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. In a state with no parole system, however, if you are charged with a serious crime, you are going to need serious legal help, and you’ll need it immediately. If you are innocent of the charge against you, an experienced Seattle criminal defense lawyer can work to have the charge dismissed and will fight aggressively on your behalf for a not guilty verdict if your case goes to trial.

WHAT ABOUT ALTERNATIVE SENTENCING IN WASHINGTON?

However, if you face a criminal charge and the evidence against you is conclusive – and a conviction is certain – you’ll need an attorney who will advocate on your behalf for reduced or alternative sentencing. Even though there is no system for parole in this state, Washington nevertheless has one of the nation’s lowest incarceration rates. Drug courts and other sentencing alternatives – such as probation, community service, and electronic monitoring – are being used more frequently by Washington’s criminal court judges.

Of course, every criminal charge and every case is different, which means that every criminal defendant needs an experienced attorney’s personalized and specific legal advice. If you are arrested in the state of Washington on any criminal charge, politely insist on your right to remain silent and on your right to have an attorney present during any questioning.

Do not sign any documents or agree to any “deal” with the authorities before you consult an experienced criminal defense lawyer. If you need defense representation, or if you simply need sound legal advice regarding alternative sentencing in Washington, a Seattle criminal defense lawyer can help.