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.
An October 11 memo from the Yakima court to prosecutors and defense attorneys attributes the policy change to an August opinion by the Washington State Ethics Advisory Committee. The opinion responded to a question by Charles, Seattle Muni Court's presiding judge, as to whether a court could adopt a "blanket" 364-day sentencing policy because of immigration concerns.
At the time, she has told SW, that's was she thought City Attorney Pete Holmes was asking her court to do. Later, she conceded that she had misunderstood. Holmes had not suggested a blanket policy for judges, who have the ultimate discretion over sentencing. Instead, he had asked his own prosecutors to start seeking the slightly shorter sentences.
Responding to the question asked, however, the ethics committee opined that courts could not carry out the "blanket policy" that Charles described "because judicial officers are required to examine the facts and law in each case." Which is why Yakima's decision--which simply seems to issue a new blanket policy--is so puzzling.
Yakima Muni Court Presiding Judge Kelley Olwell insists that there's no new blanket policy. "Each case is subject to individual scrutiny," she tells SW. At the same time, she says that the new policy describes what will "typically" happen.
Upon being read the Yakima Court's memo, Alan Hancock, an Island County Superior Court judge who chairs the ethnics committee, says the new policy sounds like a blanket policy to him. "That is not consistent with our opinion," he says. "In fact, it's contrary to our opinion."
That may become even clearer if Hancock's committee issues a clarification, which he says it may do after Wednesday. Charles requested such a clarification after the flap she created become apparent. Facing a tough reelection fight, the judge has lost at east one endorsement, from prominent immigrant rights advocate Pramila Jayapal.
Jayapal, who heads the advocacy group OneAmerica, says she believes judges in Yakima and elsewhere "who don't like immigrants" are using the ethics committee's opinion as a pretext for creating problems for them. Yakima, it should be noted, is home to roiling immigration debates. (See SW's July cover story on former illegals who have become the economic backbone of the Yakima Valley. Pictured at left: Yakima anti-immigrant activist Bob West.)
Olwell denies acting on any feelings she or her fellow judges might have about immigrants. She 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."