In February, the Washington Supreme Court rejected the state’s drug possession law, triggering a legislative response intended to direct people to treatment.
But in Yakima County, the prosecutor, two judges and the chief public defender said it would also mean the system would likely be overwhelmed with people having their criminal records cleared and possibly reimbursed with fines and court costs incurred as a result. – sometimes in cases dating back half a century.
“In my lifetime, it was the biggest decision that affected the system at its core,” Yakima County District Attorney Joe Brusic said. “We haven’t seen anything like it. We need the cake.
Brusic believes the county will lose one of its crime-fighting tools by reducing drug possession to a misdemeanor.
However, Paul Kelley, director of the designated attorneys department, said a newly enacted law could signal that there may be other ways to tackle drug abuse than through the courts.
“It’s recognition that the criminal justice system didn’t work,” Kelley said.
In February, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the 50-year-old drug possession law was unconstitutional because prosecutors did not have to prove that someone knowingly had drugs on them. In the case before the High Court, State v. Blake, a woman was convicted of felony drug possession because police found methamphetamine in the coin pocket of jeans she bought at a thrift store and did not check the pockets first.
In overturning the law, the High Court also declared the law unconstitutional from the start, meaning anyone who has ever been convicted of simple possession can have their conviction dismissed.
In response, the legislature adopted Senate Bill 5476, which makes simple drug possession a misdemeanor offense, but only after someone has gone through a diversion program twice before seeking treatment. It also requires a system to help people find treatment programs.
This misdemeanor penalty would expire at the end of 2023, with the idea that lawmakers would review its effectiveness.
“This shifts the system from responding to possession as a crime to focusing on behavioral health response, which is a much more appropriate and effective way to address the needs underlying abuse. drugs, ”Gov. Jay Inslee said when he signed the bill. law.
All three state senators representing Yakima Valley voted against, as did Representatives Bruce Chandler, R-Granger and Jeremie Dufault, R-Selah.
Kelley said the ruling would have positive effects for those convicted under the unconstitutional law. Convicted felons in Washington cannot vote or own guns.
And for those who have been convicted of other crimes, removing drug-related convictions may shorten their sentences, which are based on previous criminal convictions as well as their current crime, Kelley said. It can last anywhere from six months to a few years.
But it can also present logistical problems.
Statewide, up to 6,500 people are affected, some dating back to the 1970s, said Richard Bartheld, president of the Yakima County Superior Court. And canceling someone’s case isn’t as easy as hitting a delete button.
“The judge is a person in the script. We have the clerk who is to take the petition, the prosecutor who reviews it, a defense attorney, the judge and staff, and the Washington State Patrol, ”Bartheld said. “There are a lot of people taking care of this case.”
The state patrol maintains a criminal record.
Kelley said his office has already started prioritizing cases in which quashing the drug offense would have an immediate effect on a person’s freedoms. But he said it also meant an additional workload for his lawyers.
So far, there haven’t been too many scheduled reconsideration hearings, as many of those affected are in prison and communication is slow at this point. Kelley predicts that it will take some time to process requests as they come in.
Bartheld said the court may need to set aside time just to process those claims.
Then there is the issue of the money the person was required to pay because of the conviction, which is called a legal financial obligation.
If the conviction was overturned, Kelley and Brusic said the person should be reimbursed for what they paid.
“It’s huge, not just going forward, and retroactivity,” Brusic said.
The law requires that a fund be created by the state to reimburse people for their legal financial obligations.
Although the legislature has reinstated some criminal penalties for drug possession, Brusic does not think this is enough to deter those whose drug abuse leads them to other crimes. He thinks drugs are the ‘no’. 1 ”determining factor of crime in the valley.
As a misdemeanor, the maximum penalty for drug possession would be 90 days in jail and / or a fine of $ 1,000. But, Brusic said it was only on the third offense. For the first two offenses, the person must enroll in a diversion program, where charges are dropped if they complete drug treatment.
A misdemeanor conviction, Brusic said, may not be a threat enough to encourage someone to enter a treatment program.
“What hammer do we have to get them for treatment?” Brusic asked.
Yakima County has a drug court where people can have their criminal charges dropped if they undergo treatment.
Judge David Elofson, who presides over the drug court, said the 18-month program is one that requires focus and dedication on the part of participants. Participants in drug courts are tested for drugs several times a week, are required to attend regular meetings, and are monitored by the court and treatment facilities.
“For them, it’s an act of courage to say that they want to be pure,” Elofson said.
As a result of the Blake case, the court lost about half a dozen of its 65 participants as their charges were dropped. Other state drug courts have lost up to half of their participants, Elofson said, but Yakima County accepts participants who have been convicted of other crimes, but drug abuse has been a factor in their actions.
Bartheld said he had seen numerous cases of domestic violence in which the perpetrator was also a drug addict.
Kelley said Brusic’s stance on the issue made sense if you think the justice system’s response to drug abuse has worked. The Blake decision appears to suggest, Kelley said, that the community doesn’t think the justice system has worked and it’s time to reassess drug use as a behavioral health issue rather than a criminal act.