Snohomish County, Washington, stretches from the Seattle suburbs in the south to the city of Everett in the north. It encompasses the Pacific Coast and the Cascade Range, and come November, its 700,000 citizens will be electing a new prosecutor. One of the candidates is staking out a very progressive position on drug policy.
Under Washington election law, the top two vote-getters in the primary go to the general election ballot, regardless of party affiliation. Roe won the primary with 67% of the vote, while Kenny came in second with 31%.
"You could say I'm the underdog," Kenny told the Chronicle this week. "But we do have a plan to turn those numbers around and win in the general election. We think we can double the turnout over the primary election," he said.
With both candidates running as Democrats and experienced prosecutors, the challenger is looking for issues to differentiate himself from the incumbent, and for Kenny, drug policy is one of those issues. Reformist stances are drug policy positions are prominently displayed on his campaign web site's issues page. Roe does not even have an issues page.
Kenny supported I-1068 because "it was the right thing to do," he said. "I supported 1068 for a variety of reasons," said the veteran prosecutor. "I think it was the right thing to do to end 40 years of the war on drugs and marijuana prohibition. It could have had financial benefits for the state through a redirection of law enforcement resources or potentially even a reduction in the need for those resources."
Kenny pointed out that there were 12,000 marijuana prosecutions in Washington in 2008. "Those prosecutions cost the state more than $18 million," he said. "If you legalize marijuana, you would reduce the need for all those arrests, prosecutions, and incarcerations. You can save those resources, or redirect them to fight real crime."
"You could also tax marijuana, and those tax dollars would be a real financial benefit to the state," he said.
"Another reason 1068 made a lot of sense," Kenny continued, "is that it started allowing our community in the state of Washington to look at drugs within a public health model instead of a criminal justice model. We spent 40 years prosecuting people for drugs, but now the Obama administration has come out with a new drug control strategy that walks away from war on drugs rhetoric and talks about dealing with drugs as a public health issue. It didn't involve any changing of programs or funding, but I think it's significant for the federal government to disavow the term 'war on drugs.' That provides the opportunity for people at the local level, for prosecutors, to run with it. I'm afraid the federal government may not take more significant steps in that direction, but it is something local governments can run with."
Kenny also sought to draw a sharp line between himself and Roe on medical marijuana. "My opponent is prosecuting some sick and injured people as felons for marijuana distribution, and I think that's the wrong thing to do," Kenny said. "People with medical marijuana authorizations should be treated as patients, not criminals."
Talking drug policy reform could be a winning issue, or at least not a losing one in Western Washington, said Seattle attorney Rachel Kurtz. "I feel like we're pretty advanced here," she said. "[Drug reformer and state representative] Roger Goodman runs for office, and in his last election he was attacked for not doing enough on drug reform. In this financial climate, drug policy reform is seen as a way to save money and taxes. I don't think Kenny is going to lose because of his drug policy stances. The electorate is becoming smarter and you can use those old tactics anymore," she said.
Kenny isn't just talking about pot. He is also advocating innovative criminal justice measures to reduce incarceration levels and promising to bring transparency to police-involved shootings. It's all part of what he calls "smart on crime" policies, as opposed to "tough on crime."
"We need to continue to incarcerate serious and violent offenders, but for low- and mid-level offenders we can do more," Kenny said. "In other cities across the country, they are using some innovative ideas to help people help themselves by addressing root causes, such as mental health and drug and alcohol problems," he said, pointing to problem-solving courts, such as drug court, mental health court, and veterans' court.
Snohomish County, with a large naval base and veteran population, should have a veterans' court, Kenny argued. "It's a specialized court with a redirection of resources where you might take in all the vets' cases," he said. "It's really about asking these defendants what's going on with them, why are they doing this, looking at their criminal histories and asking how we can change this. Ideally, it involves additional resources, particularly getting people into alcohol and drug treatment. It's about slowing down the process and asking why, and that makes a real difference."
The county does have a drug court, Kenny noted, but needs more problem-solving courts. "Those programs have been expanded in places in the country and the state, and we need to bring them to Snohomish County."
He also favors alternative sentencing arrangements. "Work crews, electronic monitoring, community service -- all of those keep people out of jail and allow us to not have to build a second jail any time in the near future. If we can use these tools to reduce recidivism, especially without putting people in jail, that would be a good thing," he said. "My conservative opponents don't like to focus on the fact that jail can be a school for criminals."
Kenny is also taking a strong stand on accountability for police-involved killings. In the past 18 months, Snohomish police have shot six people to death and Tasered one to death. Those killings need a light shone on them, he said.
"That's a real concern. I want to establish mandatory inquests," he said. "Inquests are not a criminal case, but a fact-finding investigation to find out what happened and whether it was justified. We need some transparency for these incidents where police use lethal force in the name of the community. There is currently no inquest, so unless the decedent files a lawsuit, we may never hear what happened in that particular case. And even then, civil cases are settled out of court all the time. Bad things could be happening and we never learn the details of why."
Mandatory inquests would be "good for the community and good for the police," Kenny said. "It gives police the opportunity to take the stand and explain why they used lethal force. They should explain to the community why. It costs some money, but it will provide transparency, and the community can rely on the fact that the police are doing the right thing."
When, running on a drug reform platform, New York prosecutor David Soares defeated the incumbent in the Albany County district attorney race in 2004, it was a shock. It is a measure of how far we have come that if Kenny manages to pull off a long-shot victory in November, it will be no shock at all, just a pleasant surprise.
(This article was published by StoptheDrugWar.org's lobbying arm, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also shares the cost of maintaining this web site. DRCNet Foundation takes no positions on candidates for public office, in compliance with section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, and does not pay for reporting that could be interpreted or misinterpreted as doing so.)