Three-strikes law causing pricey glut of lifers without parole

Expensive and, critics say, unjust life sentences for low-level street crimes remove chance of criminals' rehabilitation

Vance Bartley will never forget the day he arrived in a jumpsuit and shackles at the place they called Gladiator School — a prison in the northeastern corner of Washington state populated by some of the most violent criminals. Bartley was an addict, a guy from the rough streets of south Seattle who had committed robberies to keep himself high.

Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla.
AP Photo/Jackie Johnston

There’s a saying that one day everyone will die alone. And as Bartley stood in the corner of the concrete-and-chain-link prison yard, watching feeble old men shuffle alongside Crips and Bloods and Norteños and skinheads, he could feel himself believing it.

Right there, among murderers and sex offenders, was where he would die.

“I just remember saying, ‘My God, how am I going to survive?’” he said. “I don’t care how tough you are, there’s always someone tougher in prison.”

He was arrested at 31 and spent more than a year in jail before being sentenced to life without parole under Washington state’s persistent-offender law — more commonly referred to as the three-strikes law. When he was growing up, getting arrested wasn’t something he feared — it was just part of life.

Bartley, who had previously committed a second-degree robbery and a second-degree assault, finally earned his third strike and life sentence in 1998 for his participation in a string of robberies. That guy — the one who demanded that people give him their money — needed to be behind bars. Bartley admits prison was probably the only thing that could have forced him out of his crack addiction and street-crime lifestyle.

But by the time he got his third strike, it was too late for him.

Nearly 160,000 people are serving life sentences in America’s prisons, according to a recent report by the Sentencing Project (PDF), a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that advocates for criminal-justice reform. Thirty-one percent of those people, like Bartley, won’t ever go before a parole board. A separate study by the American Civil Liberties Union found that nearly 4,000 prisoners in the U.S. will serve life in prison for nonviolent offenses. 

As of this year, the 20th anniversary of Washington becoming the first state to pass a three-strikes law, the state’s prisons are flooded with lifers. Washington is one of seven states where more than 15 percent of the entire prison population is serving a life sentence. It’s also home to the second-largest population of prisoners serving life without parole for non-homicide crimes — neighboring Idaho is No. 1. Nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of Washington’s prisoners who are serving life without parole were sentenced under three strikes, according to the state’s Department of Corrections.

Costly policy

These numbers are a big problem, especially given statistics showing that violent crime has been on a steady decline in the past two decades, said Ashley Nellis, who wrote the Sentencing Project report. Crime isn’t waning, she said, because of all the people behind bars for life.

“Crime went down because of changes in policing … It went down because of better restrictions on guns. And it also went down because of the crack market,” she said, pointing to recent research suggesting that longer prison sentences don’t ensure greater public safety.

In a study by the Pew Charitable Trusts (PDF), researchers noted that “age has been shown to affect the likelihood of committing more crimes; offenders who spent longer in prison are more likely to have aged out of criminal behavior by the time they are released.”

In Washington, it costs more than $32,000 per year to house just one offender, making many wonder whether continuing life-without-parole sentences makes sense.

... it’s going to be taking money from kindergartners to pay for basically extremely elderly offenders to be kept in prison.

Dick Morgan, retired superintendent

Washington State Penitentiary

Dan Satterberg, a Republican and prosecutor in King County (the state’s most populous county, which includes Seattle), said he’s been outspoken about reforming Washington’s law. In some cases, three strikes, he said, is throwing offenders with three separate street crimes, such as robbery or assault, in prison for the rest of their lives — the same sentence that would be given to a murderer.

“It seems to me that we are intelligent enough to distinguish the differences between those crimes,” he said.

Aging population

In 1993, Washington state showed the nation what it meant to be tough on crime. With Initiative 593 — a measure heavily backed by the National Rifle Association — the Evergreen State became the first to pass persistent-offender legislation, which would sentence habitual criminals guilty of the “most serious offenses” to life without parole. No loopholes. No strings. “Life” meant dying behind bars.

The idea was that three strikes would stop the bleeding, drastically reducing crime by putting the people who were continually committing it in prison forever. But the result has been prisons flooded with criminals like Bartley — people who certainly committed crimes worthy of punishment, such as second-degree assault and second-degree robbery, but who could reform if given the opportunity.

“We knew we were going to be dealing with aged offenders that were getting old,” said Dick Morgan, retired superintendent of the Washington State Penitentiary and state director of prisons, who questions the idea of keeping geriatric offenders behind bars. “It does come to a point where you have these situations where you might have a guy that did something truly horrible 30 years ago, but now he’s completely demented, and it costs us hundreds of dollars a day to keep him in prison.”

“There is going to be a tipping point at some point in the future where you can’t afford to do this. Or if you do, it’s going to be taking money from kindergartners to pay for basically extremely elderly offenders to be kept in prison.”

Proposed changes

For the past 10 years, state Sen. Adam Kline, D-Seattle, has been an outspoken critic of the state’s three-strikes law, introducing several pieces of legislation on reforming or repealing it. But his efforts have failed to gain any traction.

“There has been a lot of opposition,” he said. “Last year the bill wasn’t even heard — did not even get in.”

Kline said he thinks laws such as three strikes stay on the books because they make legislators appear tough on crime to their constituents. And he said an even tougher sell on his conservative, no-new-taxes colleagues is to get people to think about prisons as rehabilitation facilities that offer job training and drug and alcohol therapy.

“If the only attitude is that these are evil people and you slam the door and throw away the key, there’s no social support,” Kline said. “All that kind of simplistic thinking ... really does is make it possible for the corrections philosophy to remain one of retribution. Rehabilitation isn’t bumper-sticker stuff.”

Jeff Ellis, an Oregon-based attorney who has aided in the release of 15 people from Washington prisons, said a fix to three strikes is simple.

“Frankly, the easiest fix is a three-letter fix: it’s to take the ‘out’ out of ‘without parole’ for everybody,” he said, adding that life sentences with the option of parole mean prisoners who are repeat offenders are forced to use their time to rehabilitate.

Kline advocates for the removal of lower-level street crimes — such as second-degree assault and second-degree robbery — from the list of eligible strikes. Satterberg, whose office has begun offering plea deals to some potential three-strikers, said he thinks an automatic second-look mechanism for all prisoners would be effective.

“At 15 or 20 years, their case would be reviewed by a parole board,” he said. “Without a second-look mechanism, those folks are going to get much older, much more expensive because they’re not Medicaid-eligible while they’re in prison. When they’re 60, 70, 80 years old, the cost of housing them is exorbitant.”

A new path

After a few years, Bartley got used to seeing people waiting outside his cell with stacks of legal paperwork. In prison, he became known as a sort of jailhouse law expert.

“I kind of came to this fork in the road,” he said of his first year in prison. “I had choices. One was, I could get a bunch of tattoos, fashion up a shank and get busy — and succumb to the bowels of prison and all that that entails. Or I could resign to being a model prisoner, try to get some education, plant myself in the prison law libraries.“

“I read a lot of books and I read a lot of briefs. I found that through all the drugs and all the other stuff, I still had some brain cells left. I developed a knack to understand this law. I never gave up on my case.”

After years of research, he found something called a facial invalidity in regard to his second strike, a second-degree robbery — one he never actually completed. At his sentencing years earlier, Bartley had accepted a guilty plea for three completed felonies. But because he never actually completed the robbery, he was over sentenced.

He wrote letters pointing out his findings to several lawyers, including one to Ellis, who believed Bartley had found a loophole in the system. He briefed the case, brought it to court — and they won.

In 2008, after 10 years in prison, Bartley was released. On the day he went free, Ellis hired him as a paralegal.

Today, at 48, Bartley is nothing like the man who entered prison. He attends weekly Narcotics Anonymous meetings, lives with his girlfriend, and tries to repair the damage done by the years he missed with his daughters. He just took a second job serving slices of pizza to earn extra money during the holidays.

He aids Ellis in trying to help reformed people who’ve done their time get out of exorbitant life sentences. Every day, he remembers he was one of the lucky ones.

“I have struggles — everybody does,” Bartley said. “But mine just don’t involve going to jail.”

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