Criminal justice reform in WA starts with resentencing push, helping youths
About six months ago, Cheryl Lidel became the first woman released from prison in Washington state under a new law.
Lidel — a 62-year-old Black woman who takes pride in her appearance — testified before a King County Superior Court judge just before her release.
“You do not have to remain broken. You can become the person that God pre-designed you to be. And you don’t have to continue to drown in your past. You can change your past by being a better person,” Lidel told a judge last summer.
Twelve years ago, Lidel walked into a Subway sandwich shop and used a chokehold on the woman behind the counter. She stuck her hand in her pocket to make like she had a gun and demanded that the woman empty the cash register. Lidel walked out with $370 to support her heroin habit.
Later that day, Seattle police arrested her. They found the money, but no gun. She was found guilty of second-degree robbery. And because Lidel had been convicted of robbery twice before, this third conviction meant a life sentence without parole under Washington state’s three-strikes law.
That three-strikes law was enacted 29 years ago because people thought it would reduce crime during a wave of it in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg says he never believed second-degree robbery should put someone behind bars for life.
“I think it's important for prosecutors to admit that there may have been cases that went through their office where the result was not just," Satterberg said in a recent interview.
Criminal justice experts say life sentences are a major reason the United States leads the world in mass incarceration rates. At the end of 2020, 1.2 million people were in U.S. prisons.
Tough-on-crime laws have not only led to high rates of incarceration but also have disproportionately impacted Black, Indigenous and other people of color.
“You have youth of color in BIPOC communities being treated very differently than white youth,” said Prachi Dave, policy and advocacy director at the Public Defender Association in Seattle, a nonprofit that advocates for criminal justice reform.
Due to the pandemic, some states have made progress in reducing their prison population. In Washington, the prison population dropped by about 18 percent between 2019 and 2020.
But without legislative changes, the number of people incarcerated could go back up once the current public health crisis is over.
There are a couple laws and a recent state Supreme Court ruling that are helping keep people out of prison. In 2020, Washington state legislators gave prosecutors more authority to resentence cases, and potentially release prisoners.
In 2021, the Washington state Supreme Court decriminalized simple drug possession. So far, more than 600 people have been released from prison because of that ruling, according to state Department of Corrections data.
"We are doing as many of those as we can as fast as we can because we don't want people to be serving what they call dead time: time you shouldn't be in prison," Satterberg said.
That same year, state legislators passed the law that changed Lidel’s life. That law makes it possible for prisoners sentenced to life for second-degree robbery to be released. According to state Department of Corrections, across the state, prosecutors have retried more than 40 three-strikes cases involving second-degree robbery.
"The fact is that there are a lot of people who are currently incarcerated and who could very much benefit from these kind of legislative changes," Prachi said.
Criminal justice experts say that legislative changes that help incarcerated individuals don’t necessarily make society any less safe, in part because most individuals eventually age out of crime.
Miriam Krinsky is with Fair and Just Prosecution, an organization that works with local prosecutors to advocate for fair sentencing.
"At what point is that promise of public safety illusory and simply exacerbating racial disparities while also coming at significant cost, significant fiscal cost, significant human cost and, as we saw during this recent pandemic, significant safety cost?” Krinsky said in a recent interview.
And advocates say there could be more changes coming this legislative session.
Washington state Rep. David Hackney represents south Seattle, Renton and other areas. He’s among those pushing for new legislation that focuses on youth. One bill would eliminate the practice of counting prior juvenile offenses when sentencing adults.
Another proposal would give individuals previously tried as an adult before the age of 25 an opportunity to be resentenced and possibly released. Current science shows most people's brains don’t fully develop until their mid-20s.
Hackney recently spoke to a crowd gathered at the Tukwila Community Center about the bills.
“We have to recognize that as young people, we evolve, we grow, we discover the brilliance within us, and we have the capacity to do better. And so throwing someone's life away because of a decision they made as a juvenile makes no sense," Hackney said.
Lidel herself was first incarcerated when she was only 23. Prosecutors point to her as an example of a life reformed.
Once in prison, Lidel earned the name "Mama Cheryl" because she took to mentoring young girls. She gave up drinking and drugs and became a Christian.
“It no longer mattered that I was in prison because I was going to make something of it by helping other people and showing other people that you don't have to stay broken. And it turned out to be the most beautiful journey of my life," Lidel said.
Lidel says over time she began to realize it was the sexual abuse she had endured as a child that had driven her to use drugs.
Sitting outside a coffee shop in Seattle’s Central District on a recent afternoon — wearing bright pink lipstick — Lidel says she’s finally able to enjoy her own freedom.
“For my life to be transformed the way that it was and for me to get another chance at freedom is absolutely everything," Lidel said. "I walk on a cloud every single day."
Months after leaving prison, Lidel has a place to live, a job and a car. She’s thinking about enrolling in college to study sociology.
But she’s also weighing the possibility of taking on a second job — a dream job — one that would allow her to work with youth in detention.