Reforming our criminal justice system means asking tough questions

Rep. Tarra Simmons

I am the first formerly incarcerated person elected to the Washington House of Representatives and carry with me the weight and hope of the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated community. It is not an easy weight to bear because incarcerated people, like me, have flaws and have in some cases caused great harm.

But I also know that our criminal justice system is quick to let people down. There is no salvation, rarely rehabilitation, just long sentences for crimes often motivated by poverty, trauma or substance use disorder.

If we want to have real justice, we have to look at the tough on crime policies that have made this country the world leader in incarceration. We need to examine how our laws have been used to target communities of color. In our state, black residents make up 18% of the prison population when they make up only 5% of the population. Part of that consideration of racial equity must be the re-examination of the draconian sentencing laws this state put in place in the 1990s and 1980s.

Many have criticized House Bill 1692, recently reported in the Kitsap Sun, as being “soft on crime” or favoring incarcerated people over victims. It is simply not true. Let me start by saying that HB 1692 will not become law this year. If you are a victim or family member affected by a drive-by shooting and this bill has renewed the pain of that trauma, I want to apologize and make it clear that was not my intention. But it’s important that we have this conversation.

The idea for HB 1692 was first presented to me by retired judge and former state senator Michael Heavey. Heavey was in the state senate in 1995 when shooting from a car became an aggravating factor for first-degree murder. His recollections are clear: this provision of the law was added to target predominantly black gangs in Tacoma and Seattle. First degree murder is punishable by 20 to 30 years in prison. Aggravated first degree murder is punishable by life imprisonment without parole.

Is a person who kills someone inside a car more guilty than someone who kills someone standing on a street corner? That is the question I asked myself while thinking about this bill. Both commit murder, a horrific and heinous crime, and both deserve prosecution and trial for their crime. But because of this law, one person is irrecoverable and the other has a chance of redemption. Is this appropriate when most drive-by shootings are committed by young people? Is it appropriate to deprive a judge of the discretion to assess the circumstances of the crime and the person?

Most of the aggravating factors for first degree murder make sense, such as whether the crime involved a tortured, pregnant victim or a police officer. But none of these factors are related to where the bullet was fired from.

This aggravating circumstance resulted in only one conviction. Kimonti Carter was sentenced to life without parole for the 1997 murder of Corey Pittman. Pittman was a promising house student during summer vacation when he was killed by Carter in a drive-by shooting aimed at target rival gang members. I’m sure the pain of his loss still resonates to this day. My heart and sympathy go out to his family.

Carter was only two months past his eighteenth birthday when he killed Corey Pittman. He had been involved in gangs since he was eleven years old. After his conviction, he turned his life around by starting the Taking Education and Creating History (TEACH) program. TEACH helps incarcerated people teach college courses to their peers. Since its introduction in 2013, the program has expanded to include a coding bootcamp and is offered in prisons across the state. Through an open and inclusive policy, TEACH has led to a significant cooling of racial tensions. A Department of Corrections official credited the program with doing more to improve race relations in Washington prisons than any other program.

Creating TEACH and changing his life doesn’t absolve Carter of Corey Pittman’s murder. But it should make us wonder if we value redemption more than revenge. Pushed into extremely difficult circumstances, Carter made a terrible choice. But if we believe in second chances, Carter shows that redemption is possible, if our laws allow it.

This bill is not intended to soften Carter’s sentence. It’s about asking the hard questions. Are we a society that believes in redemption? Do we only believe in redemption for certain types of people? How can we create justice without relying on revenge?

Formerly incarcerated and incarcerated people are often deeply flawed and the most guilty of committing a crime, but they are also people. As a crime survivor, I also know that revenge doesn’t take away the pain. My healing came from finding community and purpose for pain. I want us to have this conversation about punishment and redemption. To become a better society, we must look each other in the eye and answer these difficult questions.

Tarra Simmons represents the 23rd District in the Washington State House of Representatives. This column originally appeared in The Seattle Times.

Comments are closed.