(JamesBrey via iStock)

Before Bill Joice was sentenced to more than 31 years in prison, he spent nine years as a Snohomish County prosecuting attorney. Luckily for Travis Turner, who is incarcerated at the Washington State Reformatory along with Joice, the former prosecuting attorney chooses to use his unique experiences to fight for reform for people like him. 

Turner was raised in an indifferent foster care system that oftentimes funnels children into the foster care-to-prison pipeline. He returned from a two-year Army deployment with a drug addiction that led to his participation in an armed robbery. He was sentenced to 54 months, plus 114 months for weapon enhancements with no option to earn time off for good behavior. He recently applied for resentencing under Senate Bill 6164, which allows prosecutors the discretion to petition the court to resentence an individual if their current sentence no longer serves the interest of justice. According to Joice, this kind of bill is for cases like Turner’s.

Turner has used his time in prison to both educate and rehabilitate himself. In 2016, he became a certified HVAC tech through Walla Walla Community College. In 2019 he earned his associate of arts degree from Seattle Central University and also became a certified vermiculture and composting specialist through Evergreen State College. He sought to correct his negative behavioral patterns by taking and graduating from various classes such as Redemption Self Awareness, Alternatives to Violence, Nonviolent Communication, Substance Abuse Awareness, and Anger Management. Turner is now a facilitator for several of these same classes.

“I can’t adequately express how impacted I have been by Eugene [Youngblood] and Travis,” Washington state Sen. Jeannie Darneille said. “If you ever want an image of people who have turned themselves around in prison, and who deserve to have their cases reviewed, look at these two faces.” 

Youngblood was set to spend the rest of his life in prison for two murders that occurred during a gang-related shooting. He petitioned the clemency board with a list of accomplishments nearly identical to Turner’s and received clemency shortly after. But Turner received a letter from his prosecutor informing him that he couldn’t recommend SB 6164 because unlike Youngblood, Turner had been sentenced under Washington’s Sentencing Reform Act (SRA).

“I just remember thinking [being approved for resentencing] is a sure thing,” Turner said. “I have an HVAC degree, AA degree, I’m a mentor, I’ve done everything to be ready to go home and do my part.”

SRA, enacted during the “tough on crime” era of the early 1980s, got rid of parole, established standard sentencing ranges, and upped the penalties for those who lost in trial. Over the years the SRA has been updated to include various types of enhancements. Republicans backed it because they felt judges were too soft. Democrats backed it because they thought it would create racial and economic equity within the criminal justice system. Unfortunately, it’s most commonly used by prosecutors to negotiate for higher sentences during plea bargains.

Joice explained that when the SRA came out, incarcerated people with good behavior could have up to one-third of their sentences reduced. However, as the years passed, that amount of time was whittled away for what was considered “serious crimes.” 

“Now many [incarcerated people] can only earn a maximum of 10% with no ability to earn good time on any added enhancements,” Joice said. “They enacted mandatory minimum sentences and removed incentives to rehabilitate oneself, especially for those serving sentences that are longer than they’ve been alive.”

So why would anybody accept a plea agreement under the SRA? 

“They were threatening me with every felony they could tack onto the case,” Turner said. “They tried to give me 40 years, and with the weapon enhancements I would have done most of that. It was either take their deal or spend what might have been the rest of my life in prison, so I felt like I didn’t really have a choice.”

Joice said the deputy prosecutor in Turner’s case would have looked at all the details they had and determined the total number of crimes that could be charged and the maximum sentence that could be imposed. The prosecutor would then have drafted a set of lesser charges that Turner could plead to. If he refused and decided to execute his right to a trial then the prosecutor would charge Turner with everything, regardless of whether it was a fair representation or not, which would have been a very high risk for Turner to take.

“In Washington the conviction rate at trial is unbelievably high, approaching nearly 100%,” Joice said.

According to the prosecutor who offered Turner that deal, the terms of the plea deal made Turner ineligible to be resentenced, regardless of everything he’s done while incarcerated to better himself and serve his community. An individual who committed the same crime, participated in significantly less rehabilitative programming, yet negotiated a different sentence might qualify, but Turner never will.

According to Joice, at the time SB 6164 was approved there was a growing movement in the community for some significant sentencing reform. Joice believes SB 6164 was an attempt to stall support for sentencing reform by presenting something that looks like it’s accomplishing something, but does very little. 

“Anybody serving time can ask the prosecutor, but it allows the prosecutor to say ‘no,’ like in Travis’s case,” Joice said. “SB 6164 is, in my opinion, smoke and mirrors. It was put together for something prosecutors could support because it didn’t take any power from them.”

Turner isn’t an unmotivated or hopeless man. He’s heavily involved in just about every educational program in the prison and always strives to better himself through independent studies. Still, this ordeal has left him confused about the true meaning of “the interest of justice” when it’s applied to people like him.

Michael J. Moore is a Latinx author and playwright from Washington state. His books include "Highway Twenty," the bestselling post-apocalyptic novel, "After the Change," and the psychological thriller,...