On February 12th, prisoners here in Washington State’s Monroe Correctional Complex (MCC) watched a televised debate on Washington’s Substitute Senate Bill (SSB) 1169. If passed, the bill would have eliminated certain sentencing enhancements and permitted greater judicial discretion on others. Enacted during the “Tough on Crime” era of the 1990s, sentencing enhancements, like school zone or weapons enhancements, add time to a prisoner’s sentence for various factors that might come into play during the commission of a crime.
House Republicans argued that eliminating sentencing enhancements would promote further crime. It might seem intuitive that harm committed using a weapon or by a school should be punished more severely. However, many of my incarcerated neighbors and I are struggling to remember a time enhancements were ever used for anything other than leverage in plea negotiations: coercing defendants out of their constitutional right to a trial.
In 2014, I took a 12-year plea deal because I was threatened with 35 years’ worth of gun enhancements—for multiple robberies—if I went to trial and lost. My lawyer told me that if the prosecutor hadn’t had the gun enhancements to leverage against me, I would have likely gotten a much better plea deal with less time.
“They offered me ten years to not go to trial,” said Jaarso Abdi. “Otherwise, they said I would have been hit with five gun enhancements.”
Because gun enhancements carry five years a-piece in Washington, Abdi was also looking at 45 years with no good time before his 10-year sentence for the actual crime even began. Convinced his innocence would be obvious to a jury, he went to trial anyway.
“In the end, they dropped some of the charges before the trial even began because it was clear I hadn’t committed the crimes. I got found not guilty on three counts, though, and there was a hung jury on one.”
To date, Abdi maintains his innocence and claims, “I felt like I was being forced to take a deal for crimes I hadn’t committed.”
In 2012, Travis Turner, now 33, took a plea deal for four-and-a-half years, plus an additional nine-and-a-half in weapon enhancements. “I took the deal,” he explains, “because I was being threatened with forty-five years’ worth of enhancements.”
Unfortunately, prosecutors almost always use enhancements to negotiate for higher sentences and discourage defendants from going to trial. All too often, a defendant will see people with much more severe crimes walk away with lighter sentences because they took deals. It’s hard to imagine how this serves the interest of justice.
Holding criminals accountable should mean, if anything, dealing out sentences in accordance with the severity of the crime, not pushing for the highest possible sentences if a defendant attempts to argue their innocence in a trial.
SSB 1169 passed the house that night and went before the Senate a couple of weeks later. If passed, it would have enabled many of my neighbors—and possibly myself—to be taken back to court for resentencing (wa.gov).
During discussions, however, Senate Democrat and prosecuting attorney Manka Dhingra proposed an amendment that would take away its retroactivity, mandating that it only applies to future cases. Then, on March 4th, the deadline to vote passed without so much as a mention of SSB 1169, rendering nil a bill that could have freed thousands in a state that incarcerates people at more than double the rate of even the highest of all founding NATO countries (Prison Policy Initiative).
Mass incarceration seems to be little more than a handy talking point for politicians and promises to work toward ending it, an effective tool for winning votes. This is particularly troubling when you consider that there is little to no rehabilitative programming to be found in prison. Warehousing broken humans only makes us worse before we’re ultimately released back into society with PTSD and no support or job skills.
Passing SSB 1169 is the minimum to support incarcerated people in Washington State. Please take action to help advocate for its implementation.
Sentencing enhancements are often used to coerce defendants out of their constitutional right to a trial.
Advocates are working to pass SB 1169 in Washington state, which will eliminate certain sentencing enhancements and permitted greater judicial discretion on others.
Michael shares stories of fellow incarcerated peers whose sentences would have been different if it weren’t for sentencing enhancement protocol.