Thursday, January 26, 2023

Bill looks to bring plea bargain transparency

Staff Report | January 23, 2023 5:24 PM

OLYMPIA - A bill in the Washington State House would bring transparency to the plea negotiation process in the criminal justice system.

"For the most part, the criminal justice system in our state is very transparent. The courts are open to the public during trials. We can see the jurors, judge, prosecutors and defense attorneys. We can watch people testify in court," said Rep. Gina Mosbrucker (R-Goldendale), ranking member of the House Community Safety, Justice and Reentry Committee. "However, plea negotiations in Washington state are often done behind closed doors, which many of my constituents are concerned about."

Mosbrucker, is one of only two representatives sponsoring the bill. Representative Lauren Davis (D-Shoreline) is the other sponsor.

The bill, House Bill 1196, would direct the state's Sentencing Guidelines Commission to conduct a study on public transparency in the criminal plea negotiation process, a release by Mosbrucker’s office states. The measure calls for the commission to provide a final report to the governor and the Legislature by Dec. 13, 2024.

The bill was introduced Jan. 10 and was referred to the House Community Safety, Justice and Reentry Committee.

"More than 92% of the cases that come out of our state's criminal justice system involve a plea bargain. I've received numerous phone calls, emails and letters from constituents wondering why the plea bargaining process is done in the dark. Why is that the one piece of the criminal justice system that we can't see, and yet it often decides the end result of a case," said Mosbrucker.

Some things the commission would look at due to the bill would include:

  • identify how often plea negotiations are used to resolve criminal charges;
  • identify methods to improve public transparency for victims and their families during the criminal justice process;
  • analyze methods used by other states to provide opportunities for victim participation in or observation of plea negotiations; and
  • consult with crime victims, prosecuting attorneys, defense attorneys, law enforcement representatives and other interested stakeholders.

"Law enforcement officers put their lives on the line every day to apprehend and bring suspected criminals to justice, only to have their sentences reduced through negotiations behind closed doors. It's often frustrating for many of our law enforcement heroes. They're asking why they should risk their lives if criminals are frequently plea bargained back out to the streets again," noted Mosbrucker. "This legislation has the Sentencing Guidelines Commission look to see if there are ways to make the plea bargaining process a little more transparent for the victims of crime, so criminals can be held fully accountable for their actions and the public is better aware of the decisions being made."

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