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Wednesday, December 1, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Bruce Ramsey / Times editorial columnist

They've done the time — and then some

Here is an idea for Gov. Gary Locke to save the people some money and do a humane, benevolent thing. Consider commuting the sentences of some prisoners.

Not the prisoners with short sentences: They tend to be the most likely to reoffend. I'm thinking of older convicts, whose crimes were more serious but done decades ago, when they were young, their arteries racing with testosterone (and often other things).

The state holds 239 prisoners who were convicted for first-degree murder before 1984. They are now middle-aged, subdued and forgotten. Their chance of reoffending is low.

If you meet them and listen to them, as I did, you think: Maybe we should take a chance on some of them.

I'm thinking of Rodney, a big guy with a warm smile and a shaved head. I like his handshake. He committed his murder when he was 16 years old. He was tried as an adult and sentenced to 20 years to life. That was in 1979, the year the Iranians seized the American embassy. In the 1980s, the Legislature changed the sentencing law and Rodney was resentenced to 44 years. He has a wife on the outside. He has served 25 years. He is 41.

Melvin did his murder in 1976. It was an aggravated murder, which is the worst kind; and he also got 20 years to life. Because of the 1980s reform, he was resentenced simply to life. He has served 28 years, and is 54.

Both are in a group of prisoners at Monroe who meet once a month with volunteers from Interaction Transition, a private group that runs a halfway house in Seattle. The men say they get no brownie points for attending these meetings. The parole board doesn't care. Nothing good counts with the parole board, they say. Fighting and drugs will count against you, but nothing counts for you.

"They have the rest of your life," says Rodney.

The men say there is not much to do in prison anymore. The prison used to run a farm, but it was closed. It used to have a factory making garments, but a court ruled contract labor unconstitutional. For those who never graduated from high school, there is a GED class, but prisoners say there is little incentive to finish it, because once you graduate, probably it's back to your cell.

The men say the resentencings of more than a decade ago were unfair. There was a lawsuit about it under the doctrine of double jeopardy; it went all the way to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and the prisoners lost. The attorney who brought the case, John Midgley, says many of these pre-1984 prisoners have a different and worse deal than they began with or that equivalent offenders get now.

Against these pleas is a moral rock: These men committed heinous crimes. They deserve to pay. Citizens are not interested in fine points of fairness as long as they pay. But some have paid more than half their lives to the Department of Corrections. Imagine being in prison since Jimmy Carter. Imagine the change in yourself.

I was not told the details of these men's crimes, nor did I see their files. I saw them, and of course they were on their best behavior, the same as political candidates when I interview them.

I raised the question with one of those politicians, state Rep. Al O'Brien, D-Mountlake Terrace, in a Seattle Times endorsement interview. O'Brien was a Seattle police sergeant for many years. He is now chairman of the House Criminal Justice and Corrections Committee. He knows about the long-term prisoners and the uneven sentencing.

"We have to look for a way to parole them out," he says. "There's a problem with fairness there."

I asked O'Brien about another group, the "three strikes" prisoners. O'Brien wants to keep the "three strikes" law but remove second-degree robbery and assault as strikes. The House passed a bill to do that, but it died in the Senate, he said.

I'm thinking of Vance, another prisoner I met. He is the keeper of the law library at Monroe, and articulate. He does not look or talk like a prisoner at all. His "strikes" are a second-degree robbery, a second-degree assault (a knife fight) and a robbery attempt when he was stoned.

Under the law as written, Vance is stuck in Monroe for life unless the governor commutes his sentence or the Legislature changes the law. He is 38 years old.

Bruce Ramsey's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is bramsey@seattletimes.com. Look for more of his thoughts on the STOP blog, our editorial online journal at www.seattletimes.com/stop

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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