Immigrants Could Be Whacked by New Muni Court Policy

Yakima adds a critical day to misdemeanor sentences, opening the way to deportation.

Yakima Municipal Court has adopted a new sentencing policy for petty criminals that will likely result in many more immigrants being deported. And they've got Seattle Muni Court Judge Edsonya Charles to thank. Starting this week, Yakima's Muni Court will sentence defendants found guilty of a gross misdemeanor to as much as 365 days in prison—even though such a sentence triggers mandatory deportation proceedings by the federal government when the defendant isn't a citizen. Even if most of their sentence is "suspended" and they spend only a day or two in jail, and even if they have a green card, convicts will be subject to deportation. Previously, the Yakima court—like some other local courts—had stuck to a 364-day maximum, presumably in order to avoid the deportation outcome. But Yakima revised that policy, following an August opinion by the Washington State Supreme Court Ethics Advisory Committee. The person who raised the issue with the committee in the first place was Charles, Seattle Muni Court's presiding judge. She was prompted to action by a recent 364-day sentencing directive from City Attorney Pete Holmes. Holmes was not suggesting a blanket policy for judges like Charles, who have ultimate discretion over sentencing. Instead, he asked his own prosecutors to start seeking the slightly shorter sentences. But Charles misunderstood, and brought the matter to the Supreme Court committee. The committee issued an opinion advising against such a "blanket policy," saying "judicial officers are required to examine the facts and law in each case." But a new blanket policy seems to be exactly what Yakima has put in place. Yakima Muni Court Presiding Judge Kelley Olwell insists otherwise. "Each case is subject to individual scrutiny," she tells SW. Even so, she says that a memo sent last month to Yakima judges, which outlines the new 365-day-maximum policy, describes what will "typically" happen. Olwell says she doesn't know why her court had been routinely issuing 364-day sentences, a policy that predated her arrival on the bench five years ago. She says now, however, "We're going back to what the law is." As she describes it, that means maximum sentences that "are not manipulated for any reason." Ironically, the state Supreme Court committee has just withdrawn the advisory opinion that led Yakima to change its policy. Ethics Committee chair Alan Hancock told SW on Tuesday "that the facts on which the opinion was predicated [i.e., those supplied by Charles] were not correct." Contacted again on Tuesday, Olwell said she couldn't say yet whether Yakima would now revert to its former policy. In the meantime, Charles, who faced a tough re-election challenge from a member of Holmes' staff, may have been voted out of office by the time you read this.

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