House got constitutional amendment on bail right

  • By State Reps. Christopher Hurst and Mike Hope
  • Friday, February 19, 2010 4:47pm
  • OpinionCommentary

In the wake of the shootings of four Lakewood Police officers and the public outcry that followed, legislators in the House of Representatives took a broad view of a problem that has been around for a long time.

The Lakewood murders were the result of decades of placing the interests of violent criminals before the safety of the public. Citizens should have the right to not be victimized by violent criminals awaiting trial on serious offenses for which they might be sentenced to life in prison.

The state Constitution had for decades offered this protection to citizens by allowing judges to deny bail to dangerous violent criminals. But that protection was tied to the fact that the offense had to be a capital crime, which included far more crimes than it does today.

Today, we don’t hang horse thieves or cattle rustlers, but even these offenses were capital crimes years ago, and violent criminals fell safely within this category. Judges were allowed to consider denying them bail.

Times changed. Social standards removed most crimes from being subject to the death penalty. In so doing, a critical constitutional protection was accidently lost — the right not to be stabbed at a bus stop, or shot in the head in a coffee shop by a violent criminal awaiting trial.

It is time to correct this erosion of our state’s constitutional protections.

The House carefully deliberated this issue and came up with a reasoned and rational response to send to the voters. SHJR 4220, by Rep. Mike Hope, gives judges the power to deny bail to dangerous criminals who have committed Class A felonies, crimes for which a person could face a sentence of life in prison. It is here that an increased incentive exists to kill witnesses or go on one last crime spree, just like the one that Maurice Clemmons told friends and families he planned to do.

Another bill would have gone much further than the House proposal. This sweeping proposal even included denying bail for such crimes as misdemeanor shoplifting or driving while license suspended. That was never the point. The House felt that the essential objective was always to detain dangerous criminals.

In the Senate, however, ESSJR 8218 goes too far in the opposite direction. It would only apply to criminals subject to life in prison without the possibility of parole. This narrow proposal provides hardly any protection to the public at all.

The contrast between the House and Senate versions couldn’t be more dramatic. Here are the facts:

The Senate bill by Sen. Mike Carrell would have only applied to 28 violent criminals in 2009, less than one-tenth of one percent of crimes that year. The more appropriate House version by Rep. Hope would have applied to 1,021 dangerous criminals who committed capital offenses or Class A felonies during that same period. Only the House version has the full backing and support of the Washington Council of Police &Sheriffs, the Council of Metropolitan Police and Sheriffs, the Fraternal Order of Police, the Washington State Patrol Troopers’ Association and Lakewood Police Chief Bret Farrar. The Senate version is not, and for good reason.

Some in the Senate have stated concerns about protecting the rights of criminals. Yet it is important to note that nothing in this constitutional amendment does anything more than allow a judge to consider denying bail if that suspect, arrested on a capital offense or a Class A felony, could possibly harm others while awaiting trial. Due process, the presumption of innocence and all other protections afforded an accused criminal are left entirely in place.

With that in mind, we need to confront a fundamental question: Are the constitutional rights of violent offenders more important than the safety and lives of citizens? We think not. SHJR 4220 reaffirms the civilized rule of law by reinstating the power of judges to keep a small, but violent, subset of criminals in custody while they await a fair trial.

Rep. Christopher Hurst (D-Enumclaw) chairs the House Public Safety Committee and worked as a police detective for 25 years. Rep. Mike Hope (R-Lake Stevens) serves as a police officer in Seattle.

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