County prosecutor wants to end 2-gram waiver for drug crimes introduced by predecessor,
but first wants additional staff
SNOHOMISH COUNTY — Funding is needed to push low-level drug offenders into treatment, rather than having them spend the night in jail then go free.
That is the stance of County Prosecutor Adam Cornell, who has the power to lift the county’s “two-gram rule.” The rule currently gives a pass to suspects in possession of two grams or less of meth, heroin and cocaine.
Under the rule, a person arrested with two grams or less of those three illicit drugs will stay in jail overnight then be released. Cornell hopes to instead put them through the process of evaluation that matches needs to support, with the accountability element as a motivator to stay on-track.
“They have to stay crime free,” he said. “It’s a lot of work. I mean sobriety for anybody that’s suffering from substance abuse disorder, it’s difficult.”
That funding is not in the budget, so the priority convictions for Cornell’s office continue to relate to murder, robbery, rape, domestic violence and DUI. Drug offenders are not a priority, when the resources available demand a focus on those crimes, Cornell said.
Cornell said he does not want drug offenses classified as the lowest priority but said for him to be able to lift the two-gram rule responsibly, he needs $180,000 in the county budget to hire two full time employees to provide offenders support. That request is about half of an initial ask from the Prosecutor’s Office. The county budget is scheduled to be finalized and
approved by the County Council in the coming weeks.
County Executive Dave Somers said Cornell’s funding proposal for new staff “includes bringing in an attorney who would not prosecute cases, merely add to the existing load of his existing criminal prosecutors. We need to understand that impact before we can agree to new staff.”
Somers proposed a study to gain that understanding. But until those results are determined, nothing will move ahead. The budget is likely to be finalized around Thanksgiving, he said. The County Council “can accept my budget, edit it, or replace it entirely,” Somers said.
Cornell’s new staff, if approved, would be tasked with directing offenders to specialized courts after an evaluation process. Studies show the precision of mental health and drug courts is effective when aimed at an individual offender’s most troubling issues. A decade-long study by the National Institute of Justice showed that “drug courts may lower recidivism rates (re-arrests) and significantly lower costs,” and a second study by the state’s Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) showed similar success for mental health courts. The DSHS study said participants in King County had “lower rates of re-offending and psychiatric hospitalization, and fewer incarceration days and emergency department visits, relative to a matched comparison group.”
Cornell is aware of the data, and said that while the additional costs for a public defender and more burden on courts are a reality, “I’m not sure it’s going to be as bad as people think … in the long run, if we get people better we’re going to be saving money. That’s really where my focus is.”
The support required by court order can include Narcotics Anonymous or Alcoholics Anonymous, inpatient or outpatient addictions treatment, or a trip through a similar process for mental health court. Assistance in those courts could include counseling and other medical support for behavioral ailments that create an obstacle to a functional life. Under that process, suspects are given a choice to go through the assessment and specialized process, “but if you say ‘no’ then you’re going to be prosecuted in the traditional way.”
So far, the initiative the prosecutor proposed has not been included in the budget. Somers noted 75 percent of his budget is going to law and justice purposes.
Somers said Cornell can lift the two-gram rule anytime.
Cornell said the shepherding of drug offenders into specialized courts is financially preferable over time.
“Focusing on treatment and rehabilitation and accountability are actually going to save us tax dollars way down the road. I’m trying to look at the long term benefits of helping people to sobriety,” he said.
The proposed budget does include a diversion counselor and that helps, he notes, but he is still hopeful to get two more staffers before lifting the two-gram rule. “I think it’s important for people to know that I haven’t given up the fight yet. I’m still hopeful that I’m going to be able to reverse this policy, and I’m still hopeful that I’m going to have the support of the Executive, even though I didn’t make it into his budget.”
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