Struck by the senseless murders of police officers and wary of being seen by voters as doing nothing about it, state lawmakers are moving at full speed to react. How far they will go, though, remains up in the air.
Advocates of closing perceived gaps in the justice system exposed by six slayings late last year, including the deaths of four Lakewood officers, are likely to get much of what they want. Lawmakers filed a raft of bills inspired by the tragedy when they returned to the Capitol last month. House leaders plan to hold votes on much of the legislation this week. The House plans to vote on many of the bills Wednesday, while the Senate is scheduled to honor slain police officers the same day.
“We’re cautiously optimistic at this point that some real changes can be made,” said Jamie Daniels, executive director of the Washington Council of Police and Sheriffs.
The centerpiece of the efforts is a proposed amendment to the state constitution aimed at preventing more accused criminals from going free before trial, as police killer Maurice Clemmons did.
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While a host of other changes to the bail system have been proposed, Sen. Adam Kline said legislators should pass only the constitutional amendment and hold off on the others to allow for careful study.
“This is a constitutional right,” Kline said of bail. As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Kline, D-Seattle, will play an important role in shaping the outcome, and he cautioned: “I want to make sure we do this right.”
Kline agrees with other key leaders that the state constitution should be amended to let judges deny bail in more cases, probably limited to crimes that carry a penalty of life in prison without the possibility of parole. Now, suspects who aren’t facing the death penalty have the right to bail.
Gov. Chris Gregoire wants judges to have authority to deny bail when they believe it would protect public safety, as a resolution moving through the House would allow. But the Senate version would deal only with life-imprisonment cases, and House Democrats might scale back their version to do the same, said House Public Safety Committee Chairman Christopher Hurst, D-Enumclaw.
Kline said lawmakers should not ask judges, who are as susceptible as anyone else to racial prejudice, to decide who doesn’t deserve bail based on who seems most dangerous.
Revising the constitution requires support by two-thirds of both the House and the Senate, and then a majority of voters.
Clemmons bailed out of jail three times between July and the Nov. 29 killings of the four Lakewood officers. He was set loose despite a potential third strike on charges filed against him in Pierce County and despite a mental health evaluation that found him dangerous to the community.
Other proposals that do not require constitutional amendments would require parole violators to serve at least two days in jail and would eliminate “booking bail,” a practice allowing people suspected in certain crimes to bail out without a judge’s ruling. Clemmons left jail on booking bail in May 2009 the day after his arrest.
The booking bail elimination is awaiting a vote on the House floor, while the parole change has cleared one House committee and is waiting for another. Both are sponsored by Rep. Troy Kelley, D-Tacoma.
Sen. Mike Carrell, R-Lakewood, has proposed several changes in the justice system, including limiting parole for criminals who use deadly weapons or commit domestic violence; standardizing the premiums that bail bond agents must charge; and allowing the bond agents to carry out warrants on absconders.
But rather than rewriting bail laws immediately, Kline said a task force should look at all aspects of bail. He said Gregoire convened a law enforcement task force on similar issues, but his bill scheduled for a hearing today would include representatives of law enforcement, the bail bond industry and civil liberties and consumer groups, among others.
Hurst, a retired police officer, prefers faster action.
“Whose civil rights are more important? Maurice Clemmons’ right to be free on bail so he can kill the four Lakewood officers, or the civil rights of the four Lakewood police officers?” Hurst said.
Members of both parties have filed bills, and Republicans and Democrats say they are working together well on the public safety issues.
Other bills include:
• A measure introduced by Rep. Tami Green, D-Lakewood, and headed for the House floor that would increase the money and benefits surviving family members of slain officers can receive.
• A proposal by Carrell to raise penalties for assault with a deadly weapon on a police officer. Carrell said he has not been able to get a hearing in Kline’s committee on the bill.
• A measure that has passed the same committee, sponsored by Sen. Dale Brandland, R-Bellingham, that would raise the penalties for helping someone who is being sought on charges of committing the most serious crimes. Clemmons received aid from family members.
• A proposal by Kelley that has not left committee and would suspend participation in the interstate compact that allows parolees from other states into Washington. Gregoire has already announced that Washington won’t accept offenders from Arkansas, after Washington leaders said Arkansas wrongly let Clemmons roam free.
• A separate resolution by Sen. Debbie Regala, D-Tacoma, that would request the commission managing the interstate compact convene earlier than planned to give more authority to states to send parolees back to their home states.
Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826