On the heels of a recent Washington Supreme Court declaring the state’s drug possession law unconstitutional, the state legislature has followed through with legislation intended to overhaul current possession laws. Passed last April, SB 5476 will send first-time drug offenders to treatment centers, not prison.
Prior to the Supreme Court ruling, simple possession was a felony conviction carrying up to five years in prison and $10,000 in fines. In the decision, what made the law invalid was that a defendant could be convicted even if they were not aware that the drug was in their possession.
While legislators could have kept the felony charge in the new law, they chose to focus on rehabilitative treatment in a community-based recovery program the first two times, followed by a simple misdemeanor sentencing of up to 90 days in jail and $1,000 in fines on the third conviction.
The way forward
In response to the state Supreme Court ruling, legislators have been divided on the best approach to drug policy and the criminalization of drug offenses. Many police agencies had stopped drug possession charges altogether. The result has been a compromise, keeping reduced penalties but also having a strong focus on treatment and behavioral health.
The bill offers a sunset clause of decriminalizing drug possession by 2023. During the next two years, lawmakers will develop a long-term plan that may include an end to prosecutions of simple drug possession.
Reducing the prison population in Washington
While it may be too soon to predict, perhaps the time for criminal justice reform is around the corner. With state lawmakers proclaiming an end to the war on drugs and a reduction in harsh sentences for first-time offenders, so too may end the mass incarceration of individuals for non-violent offenses.
Data collected by the ACLU have shown an upward trend toward long sentencing with little chance of early release at the same time that violent crime decreased. Not only are there practical considerations in the financial burden to the state of housing thousands of nonviolent criminals, but moral implications as well to not allowing them a chance at rehabilitation.
As the laws keep changing, it is important if you are facing drug-related charges or sentencing to find out how these changes may affect a particular case.