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Washington state revisits three-strikes law

Many states have begun applying the severe laws more sparingly. Washington is beginning to revisit three-strikes cases, giving some nonviolent offenders another chance.

August 11, 2009|Kim Murphy

SEATTLE — Stevan Dozier was 25 when he punched a woman in the face to snatch her purse, another episode in the cash-for-crack crime wave that plagued America's big cities during the 1980s.

Over the next eight years, he would be arrested three more times for the same thing. But just before his last conviction, Washington in 1993 became the first state to pass a law requiring criminals with three serious felony convictions to spend the rest of their lives in prison. California followed suit the next year, and 24 other states now have similar laws.

Dozier, who never caused a serious injury or used a weapon, disappeared behind bars without the possibility of parole -- along with more than 290 other Washington inmates convicted under the state's tough three-strikes law.

"I went through a period of depression going into Walla Walla State Penitentiary," said Dozier, 47.

"I had been to jail before, but I always went in with release dates. Your vision is, 'I just gotta make it to this date.' But then, there was no date."

That was before the district attorney's office that sent him to prison, the conservative talk radio host who coauthored Washington's law, and the judge who sentenced him all came to agree that despite the public's demand to keep career criminals behind bars, three strikes shouldn't always mean never getting out.

In May, Gov. Chris Gregoire signed Dozier's appeal for clemency, making him the first three-strikes lifer in the nation to be pardoned.

The state's Pardons and Clemency Board in June recommended freeing Al-Kareem Shadeed, 39, and Michael Bridges, 47, who both had been sentenced to life without parole in the mid-1990s for stealing wallets.

"My sentence is the same as the Green River killer's. . . . And other people who have viciously murdered and raped women and children are getting out of prison while I never will," Shadeed wrote in January on the liberal Washblog.

Fifteen years after voters and legislatures across the country began embracing the three-strikes concept, many states apply those laws more sparingly. Prosecutors and judges often use the discretion provided them to avoid charging a defendant whose past consists of minor robberies or assault convictions with a third-strike offense.

Now Washington is taking the extra step of reviewing the cases of some nonviolent three-strikes prisoners and moving to release those, like Dozier, who probably would not face such a severe punishment today.

"We're talking about the kinds of offenses that if you were to poll the average person, they'd say, 'Yeah, it's bad, but is it deserving of mandatory life in prison without parole?' " said Jennifer Walsh, a political science professor at Azusa Pacific University who has studied three-strikes laws across the country.

"I think that's where you start to get some deviance from what was thought of as being appropriate during the height of the crime wave, which was 1992-93 for most states, and today with our historic low crime rates."

In California, where the law is less harsh than in Washington, two-strikers get a doubled penalty, and three-strikers face 25 years to life, with parole. More than 40,800 of the state's 170,000 inmates are behind bars under second- or third-strike provisions, with more than 8,400 of them sentenced to the full 25 years to life.

In part because of a 1996 California Supreme Court decision that gave judges leeway to dismiss seemingly unfair third-strike convictions, the penalty increasingly has been applied to serious, violent offenders.

The same is true in Washington state. About 100 defendants who had committed no serious violent offense were sentenced to life without parole from 1994 to 1999, but that number slipped to 39 from 2000 to 2007.

"We have exercised more discretion as we've had more experience with the law," said Daniel T. Satterberg, King County's prosecuting attorney, who said he plans to bring a series of clemency petitions to the governor over the next several months.

"These were not sophisticated, highly planned robberies, nor did they cause extraordinary harm to anybody. They were street robberies and, 15 years later, I think it is appropriate to review whether their continued detention is warranted."

Washington was reeling from a series of horrific crimes committed by repeat offenders when voters passed the three-strikes initiative. Its early proponents included Helen Harlow of Tacoma -- whose 7-year-old son had been raped, choked and sexually mutilated in 1989 by a man who had been assaulting children for 24 years -- and Ida Ballasiotes, whose daughter was abducted and murdered in 1988 while walking from her office to her car in downtown Seattle by a man who had been jailed twice for sexual assaults.

By contrast, Dozier, who worked as a welder and stock clerk after high school, was mainly grabbing women's purses to support his crack cocaine habit.

But finding himself in state prison with no prospect of leaving, he said, marked the beginning of his next life.

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