This Washington

ACLU: Don't Bail on Civil Liberties

By Josh Cohen February 17, 2010

The legislature is going to amend the state constitution in response to the Maurice Clemmons murders; at this point, it's just a question of how sweeping the change will be.

Of the several bail bills introduced this session in the post-Clemmons shooting fury, there are two bills left in play. Both would give judges the power to deny bail in cases of certain violent crimes, a change that requires a constitutional amendment. The House version, Lake Stevens Rep. Mike Hope's (R-44)  sweeping legislation, has caused concern among groups like the ACLU of Washington for its potential overreach. The Senate version from Lakewood Sen. Mike Carrell (R-28) is more narrowly defined. Both passed handily out of their respective houses so negotiations are taking place in the legislature to decide which bill will ultimate make it to the Governor's desk.

Rep. Hope's bill would allow a judge to deny bail to any individual accused of a crime that holds a penalty of life in prison. Shankar Narayan, ACLU of Washington's Legislative Director, says the effects of this bill would cast too far across the spectrum of criminals.

"It's a problem not only because the bill is very broad, but it's also not very definite," said Narayan. "There are many ways that you can get a life sentence and this not only captures a category of people that Clemmons falls into, but also a large category of people we don't need to deny bail to."

Narayan specified that an individual accused of committing several "lesser" felonies could face life imprisonment despite the fact that his or her crimes were far less heinous than the "worst of the worst" criminals like Clemmons.

I have a call into Rep. Hope for comment on his bill.

Gov. Gregoire supported the original language of the House bill, but hasn't taken an official position on which bill she'd like to see passed. She's taking a safe, neutral stance for now.

"For the governor, the bottom line is that something needs to be done," John Lane, chair of the Governor's policy office said, somewhat generically.

The more narrowly defined Senate bill would in essence give judges the same powers as the House bill, but Sen. Carrell's version specifies that judges could only deny bail to individuals accused of crimes that carry a life without possibility of parole sentence.

The Senate bill is the lesser of two evils in Narayan's eyes, but the ACLU is still opposed to both versions. They see these bills as unnecessary since a judge already has the ability to deny bail to an individual by setting it prohibitively high.

"This is too important an issue to hastily amend the constitution," said Narayan. "It's time to just take a breath and make sure we don't go overboard."

With a democratic majority and wide-spread support for these bills, it was smart politics for the Republicans to nab the lead on this popular, gut issue. With elections just around the corner, a Republican-sponsored bill to try and prevent another Clemmons tragedy will be great campaign fodder come November.
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