When the Wrong Prisoners Go Free, Who’s to Blame?

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Photo by Michael Coghlan via Flickr

Imagine the public outcry in your state if the following, based on real-life incidents in Washington State, were to take place.

Three recidivists manage to get their sentences of life without parole commuted. One of them proceeds to smoke methamphetamines in a drug rehab facility and is swiftly sent back to the penitentiary. The second goes on a robbery spree while residing in a work release facility where he was supposed to be preparing to successfully rejoin society.

Then the third, shortly after reintegrating into the community, murders somebody.

Of course, it is safe to assume that anyone involved in setting these three individuals free would pay a high price, politically.

Not in the State of Washington.

In the cases mentioned above, the elected officials and political appointees involved in these men’s release have somehow skated by with impunity.

There has been no public backlash against them. There have been no sensational stories on official negligence or incompetence.

I find that amazing.

It is also disappointing—at least insofar as it has enabled those invested in maintaining the status quo to proceed as if there are no systemic problems with the clemency process that enabled these men to be freed.

There is, indeed, a problem.

Behind the pretense that all is well, these three outcomes highlight the wrongheadedness of an evaluation process that gives more credence to the recommendations of prosecutors and judges over any other piece of evidence.

Simply review these men’s paths to freedom and you will probably come to agree that there is something quite wrong with this sort of extraordinary release.

The Extraordinary Ordinary Prisoner

Arthur Longworth is a 53-year-old prisoner who has been confined since the age of 18. In 1984, he killed a woman during a robbery and, for this crime, he received a life-without-parole sentence. In the years since, he became a college graduate.

He learned Chinese and Spanish.

He is an award-winning writer.

He is also an acclaimed author.

Yet when Longworth went before Washington State’s Board of Pardons and Parole (Board) seeking a recommendation for a sentence commutation after having served 27 years, prosecutors maintained that his petition should be denied because the circumstances did not meet the “extraordinary” standard necessary to merit a recommendation for the governor to commute a prisoner’s sentence.

The Board agreed.

The reason for denying Longworth’s petition, which can be gleaned by watching several of such hearings, is that the meaning of “extraordinary” is not simply very unusual and remarkable as the term is defined in a dictionary. Rather, it has come to mean a very unusual and remarkable case.

Quite simply, the meaning has been restricted in practice so that it has nothing to do with the person seeking relief. As I have previously written in The Crime Report, with respect to the clemency process:

There is nothing extraordinary about reform in the eyes of this Board. What is deemed to be extraordinary is when a prosecutor or sentencing judge supports granting clemency.

In fact, this is how Scott Worton, David Conyers and Stony Rivers gained their liberty after being “Struck Out” in the 1990s.

Scott Worton was fortunate enough to have a judge afflicted by judicial regret. Upon retiring 20 years after imposing Worton’s mandatory sentence of life without parole, he enlisted high-powered attorneys to bring Worton’s case before the Board and, more importantly, personally advocated that Worton be set free.

Conyers and Rivers were blessed to have an elected prosecutor who had a change-of-heart with respect to certain Three-Strike cases.

Upon taking office, Dan Satterberg reviewed those that were successfully prosecuted during his predecessor’s tenure, and eventually concluded that a handful of the men had suffered an injustice. Conyers and Rivers were among the fortunate few whose criminal histories were no longer believed to be egregious enough to merit dying in prison.

Therefore, when these men went before the Board seeking relief, the King County Prosecutor’s Office did not dispute that their cases were extraordinary.

As for all three men, neither of them was in the least “extraordinary.”

In truth, Worton, Conyers and Rivers each fit the prototype of a middle-aged prisoner who had been whiling away for decades doing what was necessary to get through their “time” drama free.

Unlike Longworth, these men’s lives were defined by mandatory Department of Corrections programs in Washington State, such as working in prison industries or earning a GED (which Conyers took over a decade to complete due to his lack of interest). Their free time was spent playing cards, watching reality television shows, exercising, and gossiping.

They were as ordinary as can be: Nothing was unusual or remarkable about them, other than that one day a criminal justice official with prestige agreed that they should be set free to undo what time has revealed to be an inequity.

Call it official soul cleansing; or rather, the enema that can set the most ordinary of prisoners free.

Objectively, were one to assess the likelihood that these three-strikers would take another swing versus Arthur Longworth’s prospects for success if released, nobody who takes public safety seriously would recommend keeping Longworth confined and setting these three men free.

But this does not seem to trouble anybody.

In fact, while prosecutors and tough-on-crime advocates usually turn such incidents into a call for wholesale action to lock people up or keep offenders imprisoned for increasingly longer durations—this “law and order” contingent has been curiously quiet.

On its face, this silence makes no sense.

Yet there is a method to their madness.

The Bait-and-Switch Reform Effort

Washington State faces a serious problem. In 2010, The Washington Supreme Court held that the State was failing to fulfill its duty to provide children with basic education.

The remedy: Money.

The amount: Billions.

Prior to this judicial decision, there had been a nascent movement championing comprehensive criminal justice reform, especially as it relates to providing long-term offenders an opportunity for early release.

Lawmakers and officials were slow to jump on board. However, as this deadline has approached and neither political party has been able to agree on the best way to meet the Court’s mandate to adequately fund basic education, there has been a growing realization that a substantial portion of the budget will have to be redirected if Washingtonians, true to form, reject tax increases.

Ergo—reform is on the horizon for the Department of Corrections.

Advocates for prison reform have thus been pushing for the passage of legislation known colloquially as “Second Chance”, which would give prisoners who have served lengthy terms of confinement an opportunity to be released by a parole board or a new Community Review Committee.

For years, these bills could not even garner a subcommittee hearing.

These days, it is clear the momentum is on the side of those who are threading the needle between fiscal responsibility and mercy, and thus argue that releasing prisoners who are believed to no longer pose a serious threat to public safety is a sound public policy.

This is where the “law and order” contingent comes in. They see where things are heading. So, rather than oppose such efforts they propose an alternative.

A robust clemency process.

As conceived, the Board would be expanded so that a greater number of cases could be reviewed. In so doing, the Second Chance that reformers are advocating would be achieved without the necessity of structural reform within the criminal justice system.

It is pure trickery.

In reality, this alternative approach is simply a means to ensure that the gates of Washington prisons do not swing open too widely, for only a small minority of prisoners can afford the legal representation necessary to garner a clemency hearing.

Moreover, prosecutors are in the driver’s seat with respect to recommendations for clemency because their opinions are tantamount to declarations from the burning bush.

Like Moses, the Board obeys.

It is this type of reform that they are willing to get behind: A review process that enables prosecutors to determine what should be deemed extraordinary enough to merit relief, and that leaves the prospects of clemency nothing but a fantasy to most prisoners due to their indigency.

In the end, it would be more of the same—with a different veneer.

Yet no matter the review process, the ultimate objective is to accurately determine if a prisoner would be likely to reoffend if set free.  This is a difficult task, undoubtedly.

Jeremiah Bourgeois

Jeremiah Bourgeois

But if I had to choose among the lifers who have served time with me, I would surely free an Arthur Longworth before a prisoner whose extraordinary nature amounts to nothing more than a public official’s belief that a prisoner is worthy of mercy.

Jeremiah Bourgeois is a regular contributor to TCR, and an inmate in Washington State, where he has been serving a life sentence since the age of 14. He welcomes comments from readers. Those who wish to express their opinion regarding the decision to deny his release can contact the Indeterminate Sentence Review Board. A recent article on his case is also available here. Readers’ comments are welcome.

4 thoughts on “When the Wrong Prisoners Go Free, Who’s to Blame?

  1. Jeremiah, I read about your case and was deeply saddened by it. To me, the decision reached in Miller v. Alabama is common sense; a 14-year-old is a child. You did not deserve a life sentence.
    However, please know that you are serving an important purpose inside prison. This article was well-written and fascinating. It informed me of an important issue of which I was not aware. Please keep writing. You have a great talent.

  2. I unlike,Hannah L. , did not read your case,because at 14 years old,you did not need to be,or should have received a life sentence. I have studied child development and psychiatric patients,and clearly while my opinions are my own,they are based on knowledge of how the mind works in conjunction with one’s environment.
    Would your case have anything to do with the fact you are black? Just wondering. Keep writing it’s the most therapuetic course of action. Deeply Disturbed

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