A small group of inmates, disproportionately black, are set to stay in Washington state prisons for life because they were left out of the latest in a wave of reforms easing tough-on-crime “three strikes” laws around the U.S., the Associated Press reports. At least 24 states, starting with Washington, passed such laws during the 1990s, embracing tough-on-crime rhetoric. Nearly half have scaled them back amid concern that habitual but less-violent offenders were being stuck behind bars for life with hardcore felons. Washington’s 1993 three-strikes law stands out as among the nation’s strictest. Legislators targeted it for reform this year, with a law removing second-degree robbery — generally defined as a robbery without a deadly weapon or significant injury — from the list of crimes qualifying for cumulative life sentences.
While the original reform included a retroactive clause, making inmates sentenced under the old law eligible for resentencing, an amendment pushed by a prosecutors’ group cut out retroactivity. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed the law April 29. That means 62 inmates convicted of second-degree robbery will be left serving life sentences. About half are black, despite African Americans making up only 4 percent of Washington’s population. Inmates among the 62 described frustration that offenders with similar records may face drastically shorter sentences going forward. “It’s just wrong on its face, to make people rot in prison for the rest of their life on a sentence that doesn’t even exist anymore,” said John Letellier, 67, whose 1999 fast food restaurant robbery earned him his third strike. At least 11 states, including Washington, have eased their three strikes laws since 2009, often removing property crimes from “strike” lists or restoring discretion to judges over previously mandatory life sentences.