Politics & Government

Friction begins over bail limits

Lawmakers have kept partisan politics to a minimum as they work to limit the constitutional right to bail.

Now unity is fraying over the issue, but the seams are between not Republicans and Democrats, but House and the Senate.

Both chambers of the Legislature have voted overwhelmingly to change the state constitution to allow judges to deny bail in certain cases. Both of the proposals they want to send to voters would apply only to criminal suspects staring down life in prison.

And both changes, if they had been in effect last year, would have allowed a judge to detain Maurice Clemmons before he killed four Lakewood police officers.

But House members argue that only their version would lock up enough dangerous criminals.

“It definitely will protect more people,” said Rep. Mike Hope, a Seattle police officer who sponsored the House version. The Senate measure “doesn’t even cover half of 1 percent, when you’re looking at crimes.”

Judges can already deny bail to suspects facing the death penalty. The Senate would let them do the same to people accused of a crime that could land them in prison for life with no early release, including a third strike for certain serious crimes and a second strike for sex crimes.

The House would allow denial of bail for any potential life sentence, regardless of whether there is a possibility of early release. That would add first offenses on many of the most serious crimes – including murder, rape, first-degree robbery, first-degree burglary and first-degree arson.

Rep. Christopher Hurst said 1,021 people were sentenced in 2009 for crimes the House would cover. The Senate version would have applied to just 28 people, he said. Those numbers do not count suspects who were charged and later exonerated, who could also be denied bail.

Clemmons bailed out of jail six days before the Nov. 29 shootings, despite facing a potential third strike on a child rape charge.

Hope, a Republican from Lake Stevens, and Hurst, a Democrat from Enumclaw, hope they can get senators to budge from their position. They’re critical of the legislation sponsored by Sen. Mike Carrell, a Lakewood Republican.

“Mike is standing on a teeny little island all by himself with no support,” Hurst said.

Carrell is conciliatory toward his House critics. He likes the House version, but said the deal he struck with Seattle Democratic Sen. Adam Kline, while not as tough as he would have liked, had the best shot at passing the Senate.

“I’m convinced that we’re going to come up with some language that will address the concerns of everybody,” Carrell said. In the legislative session that ends March 11, “We’ve got three weeks to go. It’s not time for anybody to say that everything is blown up or anything like that.”

There seemed to be little danger of that just over a week ago, when Carrell’s proposed constitutional amendment passed the Senate 43-4 after Hope’s proposal passed the House 80-17. Two-thirds majorities are required to send a constitutional change to the voters.

But now Carrell is talking about scrapping both proposals and trying an entirely different approach, which he didn’t want to disclose publicly before working out details.

Hope is skeptical, saying the House already has compromised enough by scaling back Gov. Chris Gregoire’s proposal, which police groups preferred. It would have given judges wide authority to detain people seen as a threat to public safety.

“If we can cast a wider net, to get some of these really bad people off the street, then I would be in favor of that,” said Lakewood Police Chief Bret Farrar, who prefers the House version.

The American Civil Liberties Union says the net would grow too wide with any of the constitutional changes proposed, but particularly with the House version, which goes beyond third-strike offenders including Clemmons to take in an unknown number of other crimes.

“Why add in these large numbers of other people?” asked Shankar Narayan, legislative director for the ACLU. “I think it’s likely to be thousands of people whose crimes don’t rise to that level of seriousness.”

Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826