Personal Restraint Petitions – Helping Individuals Who Are Incarcerated Present Requests for Relief to the Court 

One of the successes of the 2023 legislative session may not have received the fanfare TeamChild believes it deserves.  SB 5046 provides funding for The Office of Public Defense to provide an attorney for some individuals who are incarcerated and have legal claims regarding their conviction and sentencing that deserve a chance to be heard by the court. We wanted to explain why it matters so much to us and our young clients.

Over the last five years, TeamChild has expanded our legal advocacy to support the youth and young adults who are incarcerated in the state’s Juvenile Rehabilitation (“JR”) system. Expanding to serve incarcerated youth aligns with our goals of breaking down barriers caused by the criminal system for youth to have long-term success. Spending time in prison impacts a young person’s ability to persist through education to completion, find stable housing, seek employment, and build or maintain strong community connections.

Youth at the JR facilities are still learning and developing. They range in age from 12 years old to 24 years old.  Many of the clients TeamChild meets at JR still have lingering questions about the criminal legal process. They do not understand what happened in court, what legal tools their public defenders applied to their cases, or even what exactly they were found guilty of doing. TeamChild attorneys have learned about the legal tools needed to help answer these questions and represent youth on legal issues related to their criminal case. One of those issues clients ask TeamChild to help with is post-conviction relief – meaning challenging the court’s finding of guilt and/or the sentence the court imposed. One legal tool to seek post-conviction relief is called a Personal Restraint Petition, or PRP.

“Petition” is a word that means asking the court to take some sort of action. It is the way a person can “ask” or “petition” the court to hear their request and make a ruling. PRPs are a legal tool available to people in Washington state who have been “unlawfully restrained by a government action,” which includes the youth incarcerated (restrained) at JR if they make the case that they have been wrongfully found guilty of a crime and/or sentenced illegally.

They are distinct from Direct Appeals, which only allow individuals to challenge a final order (such as a conviction or sentencing) based on issues that are present in the original trial record. By contrast, PRPs allow petitioners to submit new evidence that was not present during trial. This means that certain claims can be made in a PRP that cannot be made in a direct appeal.  According to Managing Attorney, Gus Voss, “PRPs are a last-chance effort to challenge a state action where a person’s rights are being violated, including severe constitutional violations.”

The timeframe during which an individual can submit a PRP to the court is much longer than when an individual may submit a direct appeal. Direct appeals generally must be submitted on a very short timeline (typically 30 days), while individuals have up to a year after conviction to submit a PRP. A PRP is typically a legal action filed in the Court of Appeals, although in some cases, a PRP may be filed directly in the Washington Supreme Court. A PRP is similar to what is called a Writ of Habeas Corpus in federal law.

Some of the reasons why a youth may seek a PRP are to challenge the court’s finding of guilt or the sentence imposed by the court. Some PRPs assert that the sentence went far outside of what would be considered fair. Others allege that there was a legal rule that was misapplied and resulted in an unfair outcome.  As stated earlier, the youth may want to raise a concern that the attorney appointed to them failed to raise key issues for them at the trial. Sometimes, there is newly discovered evidence or facts that the youth wants the court to consider.

Many people, youth and adults, file PRPs each year. 1,120 PRPs were filed in 2018, and the number fell slightly to 728 in 2022. (Caseloads of the Courts of Washington)

Up until this year, all individuals who want to file a PRP with the Court of Appeals had to either hire an attorney, or if they could not afford an attorney, to file the PRP on their own, without a Constitutional right to counsel to help them. This is true even if the individual does not read or write in English, are under age 18, or have a disability. If the court agrees to hear the petition, an attorney will be appointed. But the burden of presenting a compelling petition that the court will agree to hear is significant. The individual has to make arguments of fact and law to convince the court to hear their case before they are actually assigned an attorney.

For many people, especially young folks, it is nearly impossible to know all of the legal issues necessary to craft a compelling PRP. The expectation that young people with little to no legal training, who are incarcerated and subjected daily to stressful situations, should be able to identify legal issues and navigate a complex web of procedures to file a written petition in front of the Court of Appeals is unreasonable and underscores the need to expand access to publicly funded legal assistance for post-conviction relief cases.

The state legislature took a step towards remedying this significant barrier to accessing the courts when it passed SB 5046 in May 2023. This bill invests funds to appoint an attorney to provide legal representation to individuals who need help filing their first, timely PRP. The current funding does not give everyone an attorney who needs one. The priority outlined in the law is to start providing legal assistance to clients who are juveniles, who are impacted by disability, who do not speak or write in English, and who do not have access to finances to hire an attorney. This funding will begin in January 2024.

TeamChild has strongly supported this effort, because our legal team knows from our experience assisting youth at JR that it is vital to have timely access to legal counsel when challenging an illegal and unjust conviction or sentence. This is what we mean when we talk about Access to Justice in the legal services community.  Our young clients have many other legal rights they could try to apply to mitigate the harm of the juvenile and criminal legal systems, but as there is no right to have an attorney help them at public expense, they have no actual pathway to exercise those rights. Other examples include petitions to seal juvenile records, requesting reductions in restitution from the court if they are unable to pay, restoring firearm rights, and addressing barriers in housing and employment. Expanding access to attorneys to help young people navigate the court system is critical if we want everyone in Washington state to have access to justice.

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