Like the Congress in Washington, DC, the state legislature in this Washington was preoccupied this session with devastating economic conditions, including an expected shortfall of approximately $9 billion over the next two years. Accordingly, most issues were colored by the question: How will it save money? Proposals that were perceived to add to the deficit seldom got a hearing. Still we worked under what appears to be a favourable national political climate, with the additional advantage of a “long” legislative session with no election imminent.
Our First Quaker Lobby Day Quaker Lobby Day – held on February 9 – was an informative and energized gathering of about 50 Friends representing fifteen legislative districts, the first such event organized entirely by Friends. We met at Olympia Friends Meetinghouse for a morning session with speakers and discussion on three-strikes reform, voting rights restoration, and post-secondary education in prisons, followed by a behind-the-scenes overview by Rep. Roger Goodman. After lunch, the group moved to the Capitol campus to meet with state legislators and their legislative assistants. FCWPP also participated in Faith Advocacy Day on March 17 by presenting workshops on criminal justice issues that were well attended by persons from many different faiths. Criminal Justice After a nine-year battle, we helped restore the right to vote to thousands of former prisoners. Working with a coalition of allies led by the ACLU, we succeeded this year in getting voting rights automatically restored to former prisoners who have completed active supervision by the Department of Corrections. Washington State currently disenfranchises an estimated 151,000 former prisoners, many of whom will regain their right to vote as a result of the passage of HB1517. This legislation is a major advance over current law, which prohibits voting by ex-felons until they have paid all of their legal financial obligations. In other words, currently only those ex-prisoners with money can vote – a policy that we and our allies believe is discriminatory. The right to vote is the right to participate in community decision-making. Without it, returning prisoners have far less stake in the larger community. When the new law goes into effect on July 26, Washington will become the twentieth state to revise its felony disenfranchisement laws. Now we must let ex-prisoners know that they can register to vote!
Behind the scenes: A bill granting voting rights to ex-felons was first introduced nine years ago by Rep. Jeannie Darneille, who has pursued this legislation like a bulldog ever since. Stripped from the FCWPP-sponsored reentry bill that passed in 2007, automatic restoration of voting rights was eventually supported by the leaders of both houses, and many members of the legislature courageously spoke in support of it during one of the most contentious floor debates of the session. Passage in the Senate came with a price, though; the bill was amended to permit county clerks or crime victims to request a court hearing if an ex-prisoner falls sufficiently behind in payment of his or her legal financial obligations. We expect recourse to the courts will rarely be used, but we will be monitoring the implementation of this bill to make sure.
Housing vouchers for returning prisoners. Sen. Mike Carrell championed a bill this session, which we supported, that provides three months of rental vouchers for some former prisoners returning to the community. This bill, SB5525, is one of those happy occasions when everyone wins. Former prisoners get help establishing stable housing, and the state saves considerable money by not holding them – at great expense – past their release dates. The bill passed both houses and has been signed by the Governor.
Post-secondary education for prisoners. Although no bill was put forward this year, our lobbyist, Carol Estes, arranged a joint working session of the House Human Services and Higher Education Committees to explore the topic of higher education in the prisons – a first, as far as we can determine. Carol was invited to do a presentation at this session on the University Behind Bars (UBB) program that she leads at the Washington State Reformatory in Monroe. This summer, UBB will be expanded to three full days per week, with support from the Department of Corrections. UBB is one of only a handful of prison college programs in the country. Carol is working with the DOC to develop a model that can be expanded to other Washington prisons.
Three strikes reform. FCWPP was the first to sign on to support the recently formed consortium to fix the Three Strikes law. Unfortunately, the major effort this year – a bill to remove Robbery 2 from the 3-Strikes list, did not advance. However, thanks to the leadership of King County prosecutor Dan Satterberg, many of the people whose three strikes convictions involved relatively minor crimes are being considered for clemency. In the first of those cases, the clemency board recently voted unanimously to free Stevan Dozier, and the Governor concurred; several others are up for consideration in the coming months.
Restorative Justice. A FCWPP working group on restorative justice was recently formed, with Paul McCold as Clerk. Paul is working with several law enforcement officials in Thurston County and has made several presentations to Quaker groups on restorative justice and is available for more. Local Response to Global Changes A working group on Local Responses to Global Changes has been formed under the leadership of Dan Clark. Four bills were supported by FCWPP this session:
Efficiency First. Passed in Senate and House, and signed by the governor. This bill will promote super-efficient, low-energy-use buildings and help to ensure that low-income consumers can cope with rising energy costs.
Cap and Invest. Bills that would have delivered real reductions in carbon pollution failed to make it past the finish line; however, E2SSB 5560, which?involves planning for climate change impacts, passed.
Bills on Clean Water and Transit-Oriented Communities did not pass the Rules Committee in this difficult budget session.
Sam Merrill, Clerk, Legislative Committee