I write this in prayer that as you read, you will consider what the criminal justice system in Washington should be doing compared to what is it really accomplishing. I write from personal experience; my husband, Aaron Borrero, is currently incarcerated. Our journey hasn’t been an easy one but is worth sharing, in hopes of shedding light on an issue that needs to change in this state.
Since we have no parole in Washington State, the Clemency and Pardons Board is the only pressure relief valve for our overcrowded prison system. But the Board has neither the authorization nor the capacity to do this job properly. And that is a major problem, for three reasons.
First, the Clemency and Pardons Board meets only four times per year and is authorized to hear only the most “extraordinary” cases. But the law does not define “extraordinary.” It leaves the interpretation up to the five people the governor appoints to serve on the Board. They can change every year, so prisoners and their families applying for clemency never know what is “really” expected or who will meet these criteria.
Without a legal definition of “extraordinary,” the Board has found a wide variety of reasons to deny petitions: not enough time has passed since the crime, the victims or their family oppose it, the prosecutor opposes it, the petitioner is not remorseful enough, rehabilitation has not be “extraordinary” enough, among other reasons. At the same time, it has recommended clemency for some very un-extraordinary prisoners who have simply provided information to the authorities about another prisoner—a highly questionable measure of rehabilitation that creates big security problems inside the prisons.
Second, and probably the biggest problem, is that the board hears only about 9-15 commutation cases per year. This is an extremely small number compared with the number of applications the board receives and the 18,000 men and women in Washington prisons. Furthermore, the Board is far more likely to consider an application when the petitioner is represented by an attorney, but that costs the prisoners’ family anywhere from $25,000 to $50,000. Few families can come up with that kind of money.
Third, after the expense, inconvenience, and public embarrassment of a public hearing that is televised statewide, the Board finally makes its decision—but it is not binding! The final decision still lies in the hands of the governor, the highest profile elected official in the state, politically motivated to avoid controversy and, therefore, to avoid granting commutations.
For a specific example of this broken process, I’ll use the case I know best—the case of my husband, Aaron Borrero. In September of 2009 Aaron successfully demonstrated to the Board that he had strong community support, had paid off all his legal obligations, had post-release employment and housing lined up, had earned college credit, and had the skills to be a productive part of society. Even the victim supported his release. The Board voted unanimously to recommend release. Nevertheless, Governor Chris Gregoire denied Aaron’s release. Five years later, Aaron filed a second petition, and the new Board agreed to hear his case again. Again, Aaron received a unanimous recommendation for release. This time he was supported by twelve State representatives, including the chair and co-chair of the legislature’s Public Safety Committee, as well as the victim.
Yet the new governor has not acted. So Aaron has been warehoused at the expense of taxpayers since 2009, despite two unanimous recommendations for clemency. He has been considered low risk to reoffend since 2007, is rehabilitated, and is not a threat to society, as the Board has twice determined. What will be achieved by keeping him in prison at taxpayer expense for the remainder of his sentence—two more years?
If you listen to Nicholas Brown, from the governor’s office, in his TEDX talk at Monroe on March 15, 2014 ( Nicholas Brown TEDX talk ) you can see the disconnect. He addresses who should be able to obtain commutation in Washington. He details specific criteria that will be reviewed by the current governor. But he does not address the fact that only a tiny number of cases are reviewed annually, or that prisoners from ethnic groups such as Asian Pacific Islanders, Hispanics, or Native Americans are less likely to be reviewed. Nor does he address the major problem with prison overcrowding.
He does state that the people of Washington should demand better. So here I am.
I believe we can together be a voice in reforming the criminal justice system. Building another prison isn’t the answer. We need a better system for getting people out of prison when they no longer need to be there. The Clemency and Pardons Board is not up to the task. We need a system that can handle a large number of applicants safely and fairly, that is effective at determining who is ready for release, and that is nonpolitical and inexpensive for families and for taxpayers.
We need parole.
- A system of parole will allow the Department of Corrections to release those prisoners who have been reformed and are able to function successfully in society. The parole process will serve as a quality control mechanism by reviewing each person on an individual basis to determine who is ready for release and who should remain incarcerated until areas of concern are properly targeted. This careful evaluation contrasts sharply with our current system, in which people are released when their time is up with no regard to their level of risk to the community.
- By offering the hope of release, parole motivates people to deal with the areas of their life that brought them to prison. Its sends a positive message—that we believe they can change and once again return to the community. After all, the goal of incarceration is to transform and rehabilitate people, not to warehouse them.
- Third, parole will save us money. As we release those men and women who are able to transition back to the community as citizens and taxpayers, we free up resources to use in rehabilitating those who need the most help.