Washington state Sen. Phil Fortunato, R-Auburn, left, speaks outside the Temple of Justice on Thursday, April 23, 2020, at the Capitol in Olympia. Fortunato joined other lawmakers, crime victims, and others in speaking out against the release of prison inmates due to the spread of the coronavirus as Washington state Supreme Court justices heard oral arguments inside on the issue using remote video technology. (Ted S. Warren/Associated Press)

Washington state Sen. Phil Fortunato, R-Auburn, left, speaks outside the Temple of Justice on Thursday, April 23, 2020, at the Capitol in Olympia. Fortunato joined other lawmakers, crime victims, and others in speaking out against the release of prison inmates due to the spread of the coronavirus as Washington state Supreme Court justices heard oral arguments inside on the issue using remote video technology. (Ted S. Warren/Associated Press)

Supreme Court denies request for more inmates to be released

By Martha Bellisle | Associated Press

SEATTLE — A divided state Supreme Court on Thursday denied a request to release thousands of inmates from the state’s prisons due to the coronavirus outbreak after hearing oral arguments earlier in the day in their separate chambers using Zoom technology to facilitate social distancing.

The justices, in a 5-4 decision, said that the prisoners who had sued failed to show that the Department of Corrections was not properly addressing the risk of COVID-19.

A lawyer representing the inmates had told the court that people who are incarcerated don’t have the ability to keep themselves safe. The plaintiffs wanted inmates who were older, had health issues or were close to their release date to be set free.

“We can all hold out in our homes. We can decide who we allow into our homes. People in prison do not have that option,” Nicholas Straley said.

Assistant Attorney General John Samson said the corrections department has handed out face masks, created separated sleeping space, tested 300 inmates for COVID-19 and released some offenders, but releasing thousands more could pose a threat not only to the public but also to the inmates, who could end up homeless.

“If there are unconstitutional conditions, the remedy is not release from confinement, the remedy is to fix those unconstitutional conditions and we would submit that they have not even made that first step of showing unconstitutional conditions,” Samson argued.

As the justices heard arguments, conservative lawmakers, law enforcement officials and some victims held news conferences on both sides of the state to protest the release of some offenders.

At least 24 corrections employees and 13 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19, almost 100 offenders were placed in isolation and more than 1,000 are being quarantined. The majority of the positive cases occurred at the Monroe Correctional Complex where seven staff and 12 inmates have the disease.

After the virus hit the facility, the second largest in the state, inmates filed a petition with the Supreme Court asking the justices to order Gov. Jay Inslee and Corrections Secretary Stephen Sinclair to release inmates who are older than 60, have underlying conditions and are within 60 days of their release date.

In an unanimous ruling on April 10, the justices ordered the state to devise a plan to protect inmates from the disease. Several days later, Inslee announced plans to release almost 1,000 non-violent offenders who are close to their release date.

As of Wednesday, about 41 inmates received work release furloughs, 293 had their sentences commuted and another 600 were on a list to be considered for a release into the community using electronic monitoring.

Straley, the inmate’s lawyer, argued that many more offenders should be let out in order to provide space for the inmates who can’t safely be released.

The department has identified about 7,800 people who are within 18 months of release, Straley said. About 3,400 of them have no victim notification requirement as part of their sentence, he said.

As the justices heard these arguments, Sen. Keith Wagoner, R-Sedro-Woolley, law enforcement officials and crime victims held a press conference outside the Supreme Court in Olympia to protest the release of offenders. Among the victims was Fred Binschus, the husband of Julie Binschus, who was killed in 2008 when Isaac Zamora went on a shooting spree, killing six people and wounded four others.

At the same time, Spokane-area Republicans Sen. Mike Padden and Rep. Jenny Graham made similar arguments at the Spokane courthouse.

Samson said the department has to consider the concerns of victims before releasing inmates, but they also have serious concerns for the people who are released.

“A large majority of individuals under normal circumstances become homeless,” Samson said. If they release several thousand inmates all at once, “the resources are going to be broke and the system’s going to be broken.”

More in News

KEITH THORPE/PENINSULA DAILY NEWS
Chris Johnson of Nordland-based Nordland Construction loads traffic drums onto a trailer as coworker Robert Bufford prepares to secure the load as the pair prepares to open the parking lot at Port Angeles City Pier to automobiles on Friday. The work was part of a project to improve storm drainage, replace damaged sidewalks and ADA ramps and mitigate shoreline erosion around the lot, which had been closed since early January. Tree replacement and other project detail work is expected to follow over the next few weeks.
City Pier parking open

Chris Johnson of Nordland-based Nordland Construction loads traffic drums onto a trailer… Continue reading

Sequim Citizen of the Year luncheon on Tuesday

Emiko Brock, Labbe, Olsen to be honored

EYE ON THE PENINSULA: Broadband, public health before county boards

Government meetings across North Olympic Peninsula

A pair of Clallam Transit buses sit at The Gateway Transit Center in Port Angeles in preparation for their fixed-route runs on Thursday. (Keith Thorpe/Peninsula Daily News)
Clallam Transit sees large rise in ridership

No issues seen with new zero-fare policy

Plans move ahead for Quilcene skate park

Jefferson County, volunteers seek grants

Peninsula College Foundation reports record levels of giving

Programs, students both recipients of funds

County to repave section of Carlsborg Road

Clallam County commissioners will consider awarding a contract for… Continue reading

A paving crew from Lakeside Industries replaces pavement on the Waterfront Trail and the entrance to the Port Angeles City Pier parking lot on Wednesday as part of a project to improve sidewalks and storm water drainage around the site. The project is expected to be substantially completed and the parking lot reopened by mid-March. (Keith Thorpe/Peninsula Daily News)
Port Angeles City Pier

A paving crew from Lakeside Industries replaces pavement on the Waterfront Trail… Continue reading

Port Townsend approves utility rate changes, renames skate park

Public hearing set for Transportation Benefits District

Slate of initiatives has upended Olympia, lobbyist says

‘Potential showstoppers’ described at Coffee with Colleen

Artist Chris Stevenson, who described herself as an urban sketcher from Port Townsend, uses a pencil for scale as she sketches the work at the new entrance to Point Hudson Marina on Monday morning. A group in town, the Port Townsend Urban Sketchers will meet at 10 a.m. Saturday to sketch at the Port Townsend Aero Museum. Sessions are free and open to sketchers of all skill levels. For more information, see www.urbansketchersporttownsend.wordpress.com. (Steve Mullensky/for Peninsula Daily News)
Marina art

Artist Chris Stevenson, who described herself as an urban sketcher from Port… Continue reading