OLYMPIA — A small group of inmates, disproportionately black, are set to stay in Washington state prisons for life — left out of the latest in a multi-year wave of reforms easing tough-on-crime “three strikes” laws around the U.S.
At least 24 states including Washington passed such laws during the 1990s, embracing tough-on-crime rhetoric. But nearly half have since scaled them back amid concern that habitual but less-violent offenders were being stuck behind bars for life with hardcore felons.
Washington’s 1993 three-strikes law was among the first and stands out as among the nation’s strictest.
Lawmakers targeted it for reform this year with legislation removing second-degree robbery — generally defined as a robbery without a deadly weapon or significant injury — from the list of crimes qualifying for cumulative life sentences.
The original reform made inmates sentenced under the old law eligible for resentencing. But an amendment pushed by a prosecutors’ group cut out retroactivity. Washington governor and Democratic presidential contender Jay Inslee signed the changes into law April 29.
That means about 62 inmates convicted of second-degree robbery still will serve life sentences, according to state records, even after judges stop “striking out” new offenders convicted of the same crimes.
About half are black, despite African Americans making up only 4 percent of Washington’s population.
Under the original bill, the inmates with a robbery “strike” would have had the opportunity to have their life sentences re-examined by judges — but now they won’t.
Supporters of the amendment have said even less-serious robberies can leave emotional scars, and that prosecutors might have set aside more serious charges because they knew second-degree robbery convictions would mean life in prison for those offenders.
But inmates among the 62 described frustration that offenders with similar records may face drastically shorter sentences going forward.
“It’s just wrong on its face, to make people rot in prison for the rest of their life on a sentence that doesn’t even exist anymore,” said John Letellier, 67, whose 1999 fast food restaurant robbery earned him his third strike.
The push to take out the reform’s retroactivity clause emerged from the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, a group that represents prosecutors.
Russell Brown, the group’s director, said he reviewed most of the cases listing second-degree robbery as the third strike, and believed that prosecutors in many probably refrained from seeking more serious charges because of the guarantee the charge — known in legal circles as “Rob 2” — would count as a third strike.
But he acknowledged that he never confirmed his suspicions with any of the prosecutors who handled the cases.
“You worked the deal with the understanding that the Rob 2 would count as a strike and they would go away for life,” Brown said.
In phone and email interviews, inmates among the 62 in Washington described how the reform raised their hopes — and the amendment dashed them.
Among them is Devon Laird, age 54 and serving life on a robbery third strike.
Convicted of snatching a wallet from an elderly man outside a drugstore in 2007, Laird’s court records include convictions for violent crimes in his early 20s, but also testimony portraying him as attempting to escape a past that included being stabbed at 14 and shot twice before age 21.
“When they said it wasn’t retroactive, it really set in on me that, man, I got life,” Laird said.
Cheryl Lidel, 60, is also serving life for a 2010 robbery after being convicted of other robberies and theft. She described her crimes as driven by substance abuse that began shortly after she was sexually assaulted as a young girl.
In charging documents for her third-strike robbery, prosecutors said Lidel was going through heroin withdrawal when she robbed a Subway blocks from a police station, sticking her hand in her pocket to imitate a gun. She then asked a taxi to take her to an area known for drug dealing.
“The first time I came here I was 23 years old, and in March of this year I turned 60,” Lidel said.