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September 3, 2009 -- Real Change (WA)

OpEd: Support Seattle's Alternatives To The War On Drugs

New Ways Can Work

By Alison Holcomb, Contributing Writer, ACLU of Washington's Drug Policy Director.

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The nation's "drug czar" is calling for an end to the "war on drugs," and a U.S. Senator has introduced a bill in Congress to study the relationship between our failed drug policies and disastrous incarceration rates. Here in Seattle, City Council staff have released a report addressing whether jail use could be reduced by adopting a more treatment-focused approach to lower-level drug offenses, and whether such reductions could avoid the need to build a new jail. Drug arrests are an important consideration, as 20 percent of King County Jail inmates have a drug offense listed as their most serious charge.

The report concludes that new strategies focused on lower-level drug offenders could not impact jail use enough to delay planning for a new municipal jail. The report acknowledges, though, that the jail population projections on which its conclusions are based "are not immutable," that the county's projection in particular "seems high on its face," and that both county and city projections should continue to be tested and updated.

Seattle should challenge these conclusions. They are based on a definition of "lower-level" that is more conservative than eligibility criteria already employed by King County's drug court. They also reflect the application of performance measures used in existing, court-based strategies that might not be applicable to new strategies.

Despite these flaws, the report represents an important step forward in identifying issues that require more attention for decision-making on jail capacity. Moreover, it validates the city's focus on alternatives to arresting, prosecuting and jailing lower-level drug offenders.

Indeed, Seattle has been a leader in developing new approaches to problematic drug use. The city is trying several approaches. In 2006, it launched two pre-arrest, community intervention programs in Rainier Beach (Clean Dreams, now Communities Uniting Rainier Beach, or CURB) and the Central Area (Get Off the Streets, or GOTS). A preliminary evaluation of Clean Dreams demonstrated promising results in terms of recidivism rates, housing status, employment and community perception of public safety and quality of life. These results came at an average cost of $8,444 per client, compared to $60,000 per traditional case processing of a felony drug charge in superior court. A city-commissioned evaluation of the CURB and GOTS programs is due in October.

In August, the city launched a pre-booking diversion program, the Drug Market Initiative (DMI), targeting the 23rd Avenue corridor. "Pre-booking diversion" is like drug court in that suspected drug offenders are offered the opportunity to choose getting involved with services over spending time behind bars. Unlike drug court, pre-booking diversion avoids the costs of filing charges and processing cases through the judicial system. Instead, eligible candidates are offered a chance to be referred for assessment and services when they have contact with law enforcement officers who have probable cause for an arrest.

The DMI involves intensive law enforcement investigation and case preparation by prosecutors. The candidates are "called in" to a community forum, confronted with the evidence against them, and given the opportunity to avail themselves of services. No one is arrested, and no charges are filed, if the candidates stop dealing drugs.

A different model of pre-booking diversion is reflected in two funding proposals pending with King County: one targeting the Belltown neighborhood of downtown Seattle, the other the Skyway community of unincorporated King County. These would use standardized criteria that allow an officer in the field to offer diversion on a case-by-case basis rather than requiring intensive investigation and the involvement of prosecutors in each individual decision. This approach limits the program to low-level drug offenders rather than the mid-level offenders -- "key" or "major players" -- that DMI's heavier law enforcement involvement can accommodate. A benefit is the ability to offer services to more candidates. The pool of eligible offenders -- chronic users, "clucks," and low-level (1-2 grams per transaction) street dealers -- is much larger than the 16 DMI candidates "called in" last month.

As Councilmember Tim Burgess rightly stated on the release of the jail capacity study, "alternatives to jail and even pre-arrest diversion programs should be continued and expanded, as Seattle has effectively done in recent years." While creating these programs requires upfront investment in services, in the long run these programs pay for themselves through savings of taxpayer dollars currently wasted on cycling drug users through our courts, jails and emergency rooms.

The jail capacity study will be presented to the city's Public Safety, Human Services & Education Committee on September 15. The public is encouraged to attend; time will be allowed for comment. If you agree that we need more effective and fairer responses to substance abuse, please show your support for continuing and expanding alternative strategies. Seattle cannot afford to let this opportunity pass by.

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

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