Judge Charles: I Misinterpreted the City Attorney's Immigrant Sentencing Directive

Municipal Court Presiding Judge Edsonya Charles, fighting for re-election, now finds herself in the middle of a controversy that has landed her in trouble with immigrant advocates. The brouhaha concerns her stance on a policy launched in June by City Attorney Pete Holmes to help immigrants—including legal residents—avoid the automatic deportation that comes with a 365-day sentence. Holmes directed his prosecutors to seek a sentence of one day less in most criminal cases. As he put in a letter last month to Charles, "The difference between a 365- and 364-day total sentence is usually immaterial from a public safety perspective." That's especially true since many defendants, charged with minor offenses like misdemeanor assault stemming from a drunken brawl, have most of their sentence suspended and end up serving only a few days in jail. Yet immigration authorities will boot you out of the county with a 365-day sentence regardless of how much time you actually serve in jail. Charles says she had problems with the policy, and requested an opinion from a committee that advises judges on ethical questions. In late August, the Washington Courts Ethics Advisory Committee issued a finding that appeared to undermine Holmes' directive. The opinion caused a stir among attorneys, judges and immigrant advocates throughout the state, tapping into a debate that already existed about whether courts should take into account the consequences for immigrants when issuing sentences. Holmes says that the committee's finding was based on "factual misstatements" submitted by Charles. And the judge now agrees that she misunderstood Holmes' edict. She says she had thought that the City Attorney was asking judges to go along with a "blanket policy" of 364-day sentences, which she and other Muni Court judges believed undermined judicial discretion. That was the scenario she outlined to the committee. In fact, as Charles now concedes, Holmes was asking his own staffers to recommend lesser sentences, fully realizing that judges get to make the final call. Charles says she intends to ask the ethics committee for a clarification based on the actual policy. The controversy surely won't help the already strained relations between Charles and the City Attorney's office, one of whose prosecutors, Ed McKenna, is vying for the judge's seat. Holmes has endorsed McKenna. Charles' "misunderstanding" probably won't help the judge's image either. As McKenna has pointed out, the judge has received dismal ratings in a survey done by the King County Bar Association. And a number of City Council members and lawyers are calling for her defeat.

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