A bill before the Washington state legislature that would reduce some drug sentences and use the money saved to fund drug treatment programs has a formidable coalition including Democratic Gov. Gary Locke, Republican King County (Seattle) prosecutor Norm Maleng, law enforcement groups, and the state drug reform community behind it, but the state's severe budget crunch could end up killing it.
House Bill 2338 would reduce sentences for some drug offenses under the state's byzantine sentencing statutes. For example, distribution, manufacture, or possession with intent to distribute of heroin or cocaine currently carries a penalty of 21 to 27 months. Under the proposed legislation, based on recommendations from the state's sentencing commission, sentences would drop to 15 to 20 months. The bill aims at "social dealing," or small-time drug-selling by addicts to support their habits, and would not reduce sentences for major trafficking offenses. The bill also calls for further sentencing reductions in 2004, following the plan of the sentencing commission.
A similar measure passed the Democratic-controlled Senate last year, but died in the Republican-controlled House. This year, Democrats control both chambers, and supporters are optimistic.
"It looks like a slam-dunk at this point," said Roger Goodman, the King County Bar Association's point-man on drug reform and incoming national executive director of the Voluntary Committee of Lawyers (http://www.vcl.org). "Hearings in both the House and the Senate were virtual love fests, with all the stakeholders, including prosecutors, law enforcement, treatment providers, even defense attorneys, testifying in support."
Goodman played a key role in laying the groundwork for forward movement on drug reform with his work on a series of reports on drug policy endorsed by the state's medical and pharmacy associations, among others. The groups called for a "shift from criminal justice to public health" and for authorities to stop imprisoning drug users. They also called the current policy of jailing drug users an expensive and ineffective failure, putting the weight of the state health care establishment behind drug reform (http://www.drcnet.org/wol/216.html#washingtonstate).
"While this is a step forward, this is only a small step," said Goodman. "It will provide more discretion for judges, particularly with low-level offenders, but that means drug courts, and if they fail, then they go to prison or jail, and failure rates are not low, so we'll probably see a large number of addicted individuals selling small amounts still getting locked up."
Despite being a halfway measure at best, Goodman would like to see it pass, but he is looking over his shoulder at the state's $1.25 billion budget deficit and hearing talk of using the savings from the sentencing bill to help plug the budget gap. That could kill the bill's chances, he said. "If there is no funding to cover court-supervised treatment, all of the bill's supporters will become active opponents. It will live or die on the budget issue. It's as simple as that."
While Gov. Locke has said he supports the bill, he has also suggested that savings go into the general fund, a position criticized by the Seattle Times, which wrote that if that happens "the effort will produce few results and those who cannot fathom reduced sentences for anything will be proven right."
With control over the bill's fate shifting to the appropriations committees, there is also opportunity for favorable changes. "A deal will have to be struck," said Goodman. "There are incredible competing pressures from all sorts of interest groups on the budget, and we hope we can convince the committees that an early release of drug offenders on the condition they enter community-based treatment would save substantial prison costs," he explained. "We could be saving millions of dollars within three years on reduced prison costs. That's why the appropriations committees are interested. We're trying to get drug offenders out of confinement and into treatment."
Goodman and the drug reform coalition have another trick up their sleeves in case the reform bill gets sidetracked. "If the drug sentencing bill, which has already been approved the House Criminal Justice Committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee, looks like it's dying for lack of funds, the chances of a ballot initiative which would go much further down the path of reform are greatly increased," he said. "If legislators see that those behind the initiative are serious -- and we are -- then they just might scramble to find the necessary money for treatment."
Online legislative information on HB 2338
can be found at: