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January 21, 2009 -- Seattle Weekly (WA)

Our Failing Economy's A Boon To Drug-Law Reformers

Gregoire's Crafting A Bill, As Part Of Her Sweeping Cost-Cutting Plan, That Would Further Reduce Drug Sentences.

By Nina Shapiro

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

It took two years of political warfare before the state Legislature managed to pass a bill in 2002 that reduced prison sentences for drug offenders by as much as two-thirds, and offered treatment instead of incarceration in some cases. The fight drew media attention as conservative legislators dug in their heels. "I'm not willing to go there," Sen. Pam Roach (R-Auburn) was quoted as saying in The Seattle Times.

What a difference a collapsing economy makes.

As the legislative session got underway last week, Gov. Christine Gregoire began crafting a bill that would further reduce drug sentences as part of her sweeping cost-cutting plan. Sentences would be cut by 25 percent for virtually all drug crimes, says John Lane, the Governor's public safety policy advisor. Only the most serious, "Level III" offenses (such as involving a minor in drug-dealing) would be untouched. In fiscal 2008, just 95 of nearly 8,000 drug offenses were Level III, according to state figures. Gregoire isn't motivated by a desire to reform our drug laws, says Lane, but rather by sheer economics.

So far, the media's barely taken notice of the proposal, lost as it is among all the drastic cuts in the Governor's budget. Nor has there been an outcry in the Legislature, although Sen. Mike Carrell (R-Lakewood) says he'll take a close look at it. Roach declined to be interviewed on the subject, saying through an aide that she's working on other things.

Law enforcement groups aren't fighting the move either. "We would just as soon not see these cuts," says Don Pierce, executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs. "But we understand that given the current crisis, this is the best place to make them."

While liberal groups have fought for years for more lenient drug policies, our state's financial woes are helping accomplish what their arguments alone could not. This is true at the county level as well. Faced with a $5 million budget cut to his office, King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg in October started kicking felony cases involving less than three grams of narcotics down to District Court, where they are prosecuted as misdemeanors. He says the move affects two-thirds of his caseload.

Meanwhile, the King County jail is already nearly full, and the county has said it will no longer have room for misdemeanor prisoners from the cities as of 2012. So Seattle and several suburban cities have started planning to build a new multimillion-dollar jail of their own.

"That process got people thinking: How big does this new facility really need to be?" says council member Tim Burgess. The city has already reduced its jail population by 40 percent in the past 10 years through various alternatives to incarceration, like electronic monitoring, and through Community Court, which channels low-level offenders into social service programs rather than jail. Burgess says council members started asking whether the jail population could be further reduced using more of the same strategies.

Next month, a Council-convened advisory group will begin considering alternatives to incarceration for drug offenders. Among the participants: Satterberg, Seattle Police Department Chief Gil Kerlikowske, City Attorney Tom Carr, The Defender Association's Lisa Daugaard, and State Rep. Roger Goodman (D-Kirkland). "People who don't normally think of themselves as having much in common are really starting to come together," Daugaard says.

Goodman, for instance, has worked for many years on a project of the King County Bar that advocates drug legalization. That's not a position favored by law enforcement.

Still, even the police have put new energy into searching for alternatives to arrest and prosecution.

"There's been a sea change in attitude," says council member Nick Licata.

Capt. Mike Meehan, head of the SPD's narcotics section, calls it more of an "evolution."

In the next few months, Meehan says, the department plans to launch a pilot project modeled on a program in High Point, North Carolina. Police there bring young people who could be arrested on drug charges into their precincts. "In one room, all the evidence of the case is presented," Meehan says. A person is told: "We can arrest you --but we don't want to do that." Then that person is led to another room, where police have assembled family, friends, teachers, and community members. Police present a choice: get arrested or straighten up with the help of those in the room. Many choose option B, according to Meehan and studies of the program.

This is among the kind of programs that the city might expand, according to Burgess. One move that is not on the table, however, is de facto legalization of hard drugs, along the lines of a 2003 initiative that made marijuana possession the lowest priority of the Seattle police. "If we start talking in those terms," says Burgess, a former cop, "it is going to push the buttons of some people and will really derail the effort."

City Attorney Carr's buttons are already slightly indented. "Don't you think we should be driven by best practices and science and not what it costs to build a new jail?" he asks. Like many in law enforcement, he argues that without arrest and jail hanging over people's heads, they don't have the incentive to change their lives. And cops might lose their incentive to arrest people if they know that it doesn't lead to meaningful jail time. He didn't know enough about the Governor's plans to comment on them.

Carr declares himself a big believer in treatment for drug users-once they've been arrested. He has been trying to establish something akin to the county's Drug Court on a municipal level. He says he would call it "Treatment Court" and expand it to alcoholics as well as drug users. "The problem is the beds," he says. There aren't enough at existing treatment facilities, and the city doesn't have funds to pay for new ones.

That situation is not going to be helped by Gregoire's budget, which cuts $2 million for treatment services offered through drug courts around the state. In King County, fewer people will have access to the services that remain because most will go through District Court rather than Drug Court. "My regret is that I don't have the resources to offer those people treatment," Satterberg says.

As regards liberalizing drug laws in favor of health care rather than punishment, we seem to be moving both one step closer and one step further away.

Also visit our "WA State News & Activism" section.

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