Category: criminal justice

King County Jail Director Asks Court to Rescind Rule That Limits Youth Detention

Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention Director Allen Nance (background: King County Sheriff Patti Cole-Tindall)
Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention Director Allen Nance (background: King County Sheriff Patti Cole-Tindall)

By Erica C. Barnett

The director of King County’s Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention (DADJ), Allen Nance, has asked the state supreme court to rescind a rule barring local courts from issuing warrants against and jailing young people who violate court orders or fail to appear in court, unless the child poses a “serious threat to public safety.”

The court issued the rule in 2020 to reduce crowding in youth jails and made it permanent in 2021, sparking immediate pushback from judges and juvenile court administrators, who argued that judges need discretion to jail young people for their own good and so that they won’t commit more crimes in their communities.

In a letter to the court in April, Nance argued that judges are “uniquely situated to make informed decisions regarding the need for temporary custody of a youth following the issuance of a bench warrant and once a youth is brought before the court to have the warrant served or quashed, because they “often know the youth, their family, and social histories or have the expertise to obtain the information they need to help determine the presence of urgent and immediate necessity for a custodial response.”

For example, Nance continued, a young person may need to be held in jail because their parents “do not know where their son or daughter has been living or what challenges they face outside the home”—challenges that could include “the deadly effects of substances [such as fentanyl] that are readily accessible to youth and permeate our communities.” Although “most youth do not require custodial supervision and incarceration,” Nance wrote, “for a subset of the youth who come before juvenile court judges, a decision to issue a bench warrant or order custody may mean the difference between life and death.”

A spokesman for the Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention said the department “does not track data specific to how young people who are released in their communities while awaiting resolution of their court issues may end up harming themselves or their community.”

However, the spokesman continued, the views Nance expressed in his letter “are about doing what is in the best interest of young people and what also promotes community safety. Proper judicial oversight is required to ensure that both the best interest of young people as well as the community are taken into consideration.” The letter, he added, is limited to the court rule restricting warrants for failure to appear and violating court orders. “We continue to advance our commitment to find alternatives to incarceration whenever possible, in the least restrictive environment that achieves the safety goals for youth and the community,” the spokesman said.

Anita Khandelwal, who directs the county’s Department of Public Defense, says if the court gets rid of the rule restricting warrants for youth who don’t pose an imminent threat, the most likely outcome is a return to pre-COVID policy, in which judges issued warrants “without examining whether the youth posed a serious threat to public safety,” including situations where “a youth didn’t come to court or wasn’t at home when they were supposed to be.”

The result, she says, will be a spike in warrants and youth incarceration, especially for young people of color; in 2019, before the court issued the rule, between 82 and 84 percent of warrants issued by King County Juvenile Court judges in 2019 were for youth of color, according to Khandelwal.

In a letter asking state Supreme Court Chief Justice Steven González to maintain the rule, dozens of advocates and defense attorneys argued that incarcerating young people harms their physical and mental health, disrupts their education, and worsens the racial disproportionality of the entire criminal legal system. “Because the juvenile legal system is entangled with many other institutions that have perpetuated racist practices like policing, housing, education, and employment discrimination, limiting the circumstances under which a youth can be incarcerated due to a warrant in a juvenile offense proceeding protects our youth and enables a more racially just future,” the letter says.

King County, under County Executive Dow Constantine, has vowed to shut down the youth jail by 2025, although that pledge has been coupled with an increase in youth incarceration and worsening conditions at the facility. So far this year, an average of 34 kids are incarcerated at the Clark Children and Family Justice Center in Seattle every day, an increase of almost 20 percent over  .

In a letter to Khandelwal, Constantine’s labor relations director, Megan Pedersen, said the county executive “has always empowered county leaders to weigh in on policy matters based on their operational vantage point and subject matter expertise. … This issue highlights the complexity we navigate with criminal justice issues within the Executive Branch given competing policy objectives.”

Khandelwal has asked to add Nance’s letter to the agenda for the next meeting of the county’s Care and Closure Advisory Committee, which makes recommendations on a path to closing down the youth jail; that meeting will be on Monday, June 24 at 4pm.

State’s Failure to Pass Drug Possession Bill Could Lead to Patchwork of Local Laws

By Andrew Engelson

Over the weekend, the legislative debate over the state’s new drug possession law took a surprising turn, as 15 house Democrats voted against—and helped defeat—a compromise bill that would have made possession of drugs such as fentanyl, meth, and cocaine a gross misdemeanor, which can result in up to 364 days in jail. 

The legislature was forced to deal with the issue of drug possession because of the 2021 state supreme court ruling Washington State v. Blake, which tossed out the state’s existing law on narrow legal grounds. A temporary law passed in 2021 expires on July 1, and Democrats have been scuffling all session over how to replace it, swerving between a public health/harm reduction approach and a more punitive bill focused on prison time and coercive treatment.

Earlier in the session, house Democrats had passed a bill that made drug possession a simple misdemeanor and focused on treatment and diversion. The more punitive senate bill proposed pushing people arrested for possession into treatment and sending those who drop out of treatment back to jail.

Rep. Tarra Simmons (D-23, Bremerton) who served time in prison for a drug possession conviction and who advocated for a less punitive version of the bill, was among the Democrats who voted against the senate compromise.

“Putting people in a cold concrete cell room and shaming them is not how you get people to change their behavior.”—Rep. Tarra Simmons (D-23, Bremerton)

At the end of the day, we have to do no harm,” Simmons said, noting that making the penalty for drug possession a gross misdemeanor allows for a maximum sentence of almost a year in prison, making the law even more strict than the previous felony possession law. “I would have hoped the Democrats in the Senate could have conferenced a more compassionate and humane bill.”

“Putting people in a cold concrete cell room and shaming them is not how you get people to change their behavior,” she said.

Sen. Manka Dhingra (D-45, Redmond), who helped craft the final, compromise version of the bill, had hoped a handful of House Republicans would vote for the final bill. In the end, none of them did. “It was bipartisan in the senate because that’s what we needed,” Dhingra said of the senate version, which passed with the support of 14 Democrats and 14 Republicans. “We needed our Republican colleagues to work with us towards that solution. And in the house, [Democrats] had 43 votes and none of the Republicans showed up to vote for it.”

During a press conference on Sunday, Gov. Jay Inslee hinted that he might call a special session before the temporary law expires on July 1, to avoid effectively decriminalizing drug possession in the state. “We need to hammer out a bill that could pass and that needs to happen before July 1,” Inslee said. He pointed fingers at House Republicans for failing to vote for the senate bill. “We expect the Washington state legislature to produce a bill that will not decriminalize drugs, will provide measures for treatment and will provide some sanction for those who fail to accept treatment,” he said.

But considering Democrats hold the governor’s mansion and substantial majorities in both houses of the legislature, the failure to come to a compromise rests on their shoulders.

In a press release, Rep. Peter Abbarno (R-20, Centralia) took a harsh line on drug possession, saying, “Senate Bill 5536 took the very policies that have failed to address substance abuse on the local level and would have expanded those failed policies statewide. It would have led to more substance abuse, more homelessness, more preventable tragedies, and less local control. If the majority party were serious about addressing this crisis, they would work with us, on a bipartisan basis, and pass legislation that effectively helps people recover from addiction.”

Minority leader Drew Stokesbary (R-31, Auburn) and Rep. Roger Goodman (D-45, Kirkland), who was involved in crafting the final house version of the bill, did not respond to requests for comment.

If the legislature doesn’t reconvene and pass a bill by July 1, the state will be without a drug possession law and drugs such as opioids, meth, and cocaine will no longer be criminalized at the state level. That could leave Washington with a patchwork of varying laws as local jurisdictions pass their own ordinances.

“I recognize that substance use disorder is a medical issue and treatment services are necessary. However, without proper support and encouragement, a person with a substance use disorder cannot be expected to make the decision to stop using.”—Kent Mayor Dana Ralph

Without missing a beat, Kent Mayor Dana Ralph announced on Monday that she plans to propose legislation to the Kent City Council making drug possession a gross misdemeanor. In a press release, Ralph made arguments for coercive treatment, going so far as to suggest people with substance use disorder don’t have the capacity or agency to decide for themselves if they want to enter recovery.

“I recognize that substance use disorder is a medical issue and treatment services are necessary,” Ralph said. “However, without proper support and encouragement, a person with a substance use disorder cannot be expected to make the decision to stop using.”

The mayor of another south King County city, Des Moines, said he would propose a bill criminalizing drug possession, banning the use of illegal drugs in public places, and “making it a crime… to be in possession of drug paraphernalia.” This would criminalize possession of needles and pipes legally obtained from harm-reduction programs such as needle exchanges, and potentially items like the lighters and foil that are used to vaporize fentanyl.

In 2018, King and Snohomish counties stopped prosecuting anyone caught with less than one gram of drugs, and turned instead to programs such as LEAD, which focuses on pre-arrest diversion to social services, treatment, housing, and behavioral health services. “Places like the city of Seattle,” Simmons said, “will continue to treat people humanely and offer harm reduction.”

Last week, Mayor Bruce Harrell unveiled a Downtown Activation Plan that focuses, in part, on the fentanyl crisis. Along with a vaguely described commitment to “arrest and hold accountable narcotics traffickers,” the plan includes a short menu of harm reduction efforts including expansion of the Seattle Fire Department’s overdose response unit, increasing availability of drug overdose medications such as naloxone, and a pilot “contingency management,” program that will give low-value rewards to people with substance use disorders who abstain from their drug of choice.

Simmons hopes the legislature will return in a special session or next year and pass a bill that limits penalties for possession and funds treatment, housing, and behavioral health services. “My life and my family were impacted for the worse because I was incarcerated,” she said. “This loss is hard. It’s very personal for me.”

Drug Possession Bill Moves Forward with Less Punitive Approach

By Andrew Engelson

The legislative battle over Washington’s new drug possession law took another turn last week when Democrats in the house Community Safety, Justice, and Reentry committee offered a new version of the bill, which would make drug possession a simple misdemeanor, offer more options for treatment and diversion instead of jail, legalize harm reduction paraphernalia like syringes statewide, and eliminate punitive jail time for those who fail to complete treatment.

Legislators have been in a vigorous debate this session over the state’s drug possession law after a 2021 ruling called Blake v. Washington. Although the case concerned a fairly narrow question about “knowing” possession, the court ended up tossing out the state’s possession law altogether, prompting legislators to pass a temporary law that expires in July.

Last month, in a surprise move, moderate Democrats significantly modified a proposed replacement for the expiring law with a series of amendments that increased drug possession to a gross misdemeanor and in most cases required judges to impose minimum jail sentences for those convicted who failed to complete treatment.

Rep. Roger Goodman (D-45, Kirkland), who chairs the committee, told PubliCola his striker amendment removes some of the more punitive aspects of the original senate bill, which would have made drug possession a gross misdemeanor—a charge that carries a penalty of up to 364 days in jail and a maximum $5,000 fine.

“Even when your possession was a felony, you could have three or four prior offenses and it still wouldn’t allow up to 364 days in jail,” Goodman said. “[The Senate version] actually increases the confinement time from what it used to be as a felony. So that’s not acceptable.”

“The House Democrats are horrified–including myself—by the prospect of returning to the war on drugs,” he said. “Ninety days in jail, which is what a simple misdemeanor brings, is certainly more than enough.”

“[Prison] was traumatic not only for me, but for my children,” who were 8 and 18 at the time, State Rep. Tarra Simmons said. “When you’re in jail, it’s not a trauma-informed therapeutic environment. Nobody’s getting better in jail.”

On Tuesday, the house Appropriations committee passed an additional striker amendment stipulating that if someone is convicted of possession and either completes treatment or has a clean criminal record for one year, the conviction will be removed from their record. Rep Lauren Davis (D-32, Shoreline) introduced the striker, and wrote the amendment to vacate convictions with help from  Rep. Tarra Simmons (D-23, Bremerton), who is the first person to serve in the legislature who has also served time in prison.

“When you have that stigma of the criminal record on your record forever, it limits where you can go in the future,” Simmons said. 

Simmons also said she’s working with Goodman, Davis, Rep. Nicole Macri (D-43, Seattle), and others on a floor amendment that would require prosecutors to divert a person’s first drug possession conviction to services and/or treatment. That  needs to  happen sometime before next Wednesday, the cutoff date for bills to pass in their opposite chamber.

The current version of the bill eliminates a provision added in the Senate that would require the Washington State Patrol forensic lab to deliver tests of drugs held in evidence within 45 days, and creates new misdemeanor offenses for “knowing” possession and public drug use. The provision on public use could be a carrot for centrist Democrats such as Sen. Jesse Salomon (D-32, Shoreline) who talked at length in testimony for his more punitive drug possession bill about seeing public drug use near his child’s school.

Simmons, who was first elected in 2020, has been actively involved in the drug possession bill in part because of her own experience with substance use and the criminal justice system. After experiencing childhood trauma and teen pregnancy, Simmons struggled with substance abuse disorder, using opioids and methamphetamine. She was convicted of drug possession, possession with intent to deliver, and theft in 2011 and served 20 months in prison. 

“It was traumatic not only for me, but for my children,” who were 8 and 18 at the time. “When you’re in jail, it’s not a trauma-informed therapeutic environment. Nobody’s getting better in jail.”

A nurse by training, Simmons went to law school and successfully challenged a Washington State Bar rule that wouldn’t let her practice law because of her felony conviction. Of the current version of the bill, Simmons said, “I strongly believe that substance use disorder is a health issue”—one that coercion and punishment fail to address. 

“In the house, we may have a number of Democrats who can’t stand to vote for a bill that has any criminal penalties. And you may have Republicans who are not happy with the mandatory jail sanctions being removed and they may not vote for the bill.”—State Rep. Roger Goodman

The bill is likely to pass the house. The next step will be negotiations between the house and senate about which version will ultimately move forward. Goodman is confident the less coercive version will prevail, and Simmons says if it doesn’t, she won’t vote for it. 

“The Senate version had absolutely no mandatory options for diversion or post-conviction vacation or any of that,” she said. “The Senate version is the worst that we would get anywhere in the state. And so I could not vote for that.”

It isn’t just progressive Democrats who may balk at a compromise bill, Goodman said.

“In the house, we may have a number of Democrats who can’t stand to vote for a bill that has any criminal penalties,” he said. “And you may have Republicans who are not happy with the mandatory jail sanctions being removed and they may not vote for the bill.”

If the legislature fails to pass a law this session (unlikely, but not outside the realm of possibility), the existing temporary law will expire on July 1, leaving Washington in the same place it was immediately after the Blake ruling–with no law on the books regarding drug possession. Simmons expressed concern that in that absence, counties and cities could pass their own possession laws with stricter penalties than any of the proposals legislators are currently debating. “If we don’t do something, then the local jurisdictions will create their own ordinances and we’ll have a patchwork across the state,” she said.  

In the meantime, Goodman says he’s committed to moving away from the war-on-drugs mentality of previous decades. “We need to learn what we did three years ago [passing the temporary possession bill], by starting to build up behavioral health infrastructure and more evidence-based interventions,” he said.

County Approves Controversial Jail Transfer, May Keep Veterans Levy Flat Despite Rising Costs

1. After hours of public comment opposing the transfer of 60 men from the downtown King County Jail to a regional jail in Des Moines called the South Correctional Entity (SCORE) yesterday, the King County Council approved the contract, with only Councilmembers Jeanne Kohl-Welles and Girmay Zahilay voting “no.”

County Executive Dow Constantine secured $3.5 for the transfer, which the county Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention has said will only include mentally and physically “healthy” men accused of low-level crimes, in last year’s budget, but the furor over the decision didn’t begin in earnest until this year, when legislation to move the first group of downtown jail residents came before the council.

The DAJD has said the transfer is necessary to improve safety and reduce workloads for guards at the downtown jail, where understaffing has become a chronic issue and where, as several council members noted Tuesday, some officers have resorted to sleeping at the jail during the brief time between their shifts. Opponents, including prison abolitionists and the union that represents employees at the county’s Department of Public Defense, argued that the move has the potential to endanger prison residents, limits their access to visitors and attorneys, and does little to solve the long-term issue of over-incarceration, including people who languish in jail waiting for competency restoration or because they can’t pay bail.

“[The DAJD has] worked tirelessly at making sure that the standards and the jails health services in a King County Correctional Facility are better than standards in most facilities throughout this country, Caedmon Cahill, policy director for the Seattle Office of Civil Rights, told the council. (Cahill was speaking as an individual, not a representative of OCR.) “That is why I have such concern with this council and the executive outsourcing this responsibility to another agency. I do not have faith that those that SCORE will come to you when they are not meeting your expectations.”

“We need to do more with getting our staffing in place, but we also need to take down this downtown jail. That can’t be done overnight, so we’re talking about short term solutions and long term solutions, but I don’t find the short term solutions really compelling.  We’re going to be asked to put in more money, and more money, and more money, and [never] get to the solutions.”—King County Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles

But DAJD director Allen Nance said removing 60 people would make it easier for the department to ensure the safety of those who remain. “If we can move some people to SCORE, perhaps reduce the number of people that are in the in county jail by moving some folks to our [Regional Justice Center] facility, we can get to a place where we are no longer having to operate as much of the downtown jail as we have in the past, and we are in a better position to provide the level of service to the people who remain downtown in a way that is challenging for us to achieve today,” Nance said.

The agreement included several amendments that council members said would help mitigate its impact, including one sponsored by Councilmember Rod Dembowski that will require council approval for future transfers to SCORE and another, sponsored by council chair Dave Upthegrove, that will require the executive to get council approval for any future contract extensions.

Before the vote, Kohl-Welles, who will leave the council next year, said she expected that Constantine and the DAJD would be back with a request to expand the SCORE contract within a year. “We need to do more with getting our staffing in place,” she said. “But we also need to … take down this downtown jail,” something Constantine has pledged to do. “That can’t be done overnight, so we’re talking about short term solutions and long term solutions, but I don’t find the short term solutions really compelling.  We’re going to be asked to put in more money, and more money, and more money, and [never] get to the solutions.”

2. The King County Regional Policy Committee, which includes elected officials from cities across the region as well as county council members, voted this week to put the six-year Veterans, Seniors, and Human Services Levy on the ballot in August without increasing the initial rate property owners will pay if the levy passes above the current 0.01 percent (10 cents for every $1,000 of property value). The levy pays for housing, behavioral health care, and other services for veterans and seniors.  A staff analysis, first reported on by Crosscut, showed that a flat levy renewal will cut the amount of affordable housing the levy can build by half, and fund ongoing operations at 45 percent fewer units than the current levy.

In contrast, Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell recently proposed a renewal of the city’s affordable housing levy that would nearly triple the size of the levy, an increase that will only modestly expand the amount of housing the levy will build thanks primarily to the rising cost of construction,

Councilmember Rod Dembowski proposed several amendments that would raise the levy by varying levels—from .011 to .013 percent—but got no support.

In fact, the mayors of two suburban cities—Nancy Backus of Auburn and Angela Birney of Redmond—argued that renewing the levy at 10 cents per $1,000 actually represents an increase, because the current “effective rate” of the tax is just over 8 cents per $1,000. For context, it’s important to know that 10 cents per $1,000 was only the initial levy; it went down over the years as property taxes increased, because the county could raise the fixed amount of money the levy promised with a lower tax rate. Raising the initial level back to 10 cents per $1,000 will cost homeowners about 20 percent more, but that’s only because King County homeowners’ property wealth has skyrocketed over the past six years. If this levy passes, the effective rate will almost certainly decline as property values rise as well.

King County Councilmember Claudia Balducci voted for the 10-cent rate, but said she wanted to keep the tax level open for discussion when the county council’s budget committee meets to discuss the proposal later this month.

“I will support moving this out today with the rate as it is, but would like to set the expectation that we have a real discussion at the committee,” Balducci said . “I hope we don’t walk away from exploring this as deeply as it deserves.”

Over Protests, King County Prepares to Transfer 60 to Des Moines Jail

Former city attorney candidate and public defender Nicole Thomas-Kennedy testifies: “The people that are [in jail] cannot afford to buy their freedom. That is why they are there. “
By Erica C. Barnett

Last week, the King County Council held off on a decision on whether to approve a contract that would move up to 150 men living at the downtown jail to the South Correctional Entity (SCORE), a non-county-owned jail in Kent, after several council members said they had concerns about the scope of the agreement, access to visitors and attorneys at SCORE, and the use of additional jail space to address persistent problems at the downtown jail, where the population and average length of stay have increased.

As PubliCola reported last year, the county’s approved 2023 budget includes $3.5 million for a contract between the county and SCORE. The agreement to move an initial 60 people, which the council will vote on tomorrow, April 4, is that contract.

During a lengthy public comment period at last week’s council meeting, attorneys, advocates, and people who had been incarcerated asked the council to reject the agreement, arguing that moving people from one jail to another would not address the underlying problems at the jail, where six people died—four of them by suicide—last year.

The proposed agreement includes a list of conditions that would make a person ineligible for transfer to SCORE. Several commenters, including a former psychiatric evaluations specialist at SCORE, said it was easy for people to fall through the cracks or develop mental health conditions in jail.

“Your choice is not between overloading SCORE and overloading the King County Jail,” public commenter Madeleine Pfeiffer said. “Just three years ago, you were faced with a public health crisis and the King County Jail and you reduce the population by 50 percent in a matter of days—why not now? Why aren’t the deaths in the King County jail a crisis now that warrants the reduction of population there?”

Several commenters noted that SCORE has also seen its share of high-profile deaths, including that of Damaris Rodriguez, a woman with mental illness who died after four days in solitary confinement; her family received $2 million in a partial settlement with the jail. According to a staff memo, the county “intends to contract with SCORE to house people who do not have serious mental or physical health issues … low-level, healthy people[.]”

The proposed agreement includes a list of conditions that would make a person ineligible for transfer to SCORE, including people who have attempted suicide in the past or shown suicidal ideation in the 72 hours before booking and people displaying a “current psychotic episode.” But several commenters, including a former psychiatric evaluations specialist at SCORE, said it was easy for people to fall through the cracks or develop mental health conditions in jail.

County budget director Dwight Dively told the council the executive branch had issues with several amendments council members proposed to make the agreement more palatable, including restrictions on how many people could be moved to SCORE without additional council approval and an amendment that would require SCORE to meet the conditions the Department of Public Defense says it requires to adequately represent their clients housed there. Dively called these amendments “problematic”—in the first case, because the county is continuing to jail more people for longer periods, and in the second, because “different jails operate in different ways.”

The council will meet and vote on the agreement at its meeting at 1:30 Tuesday afternoon.

County Moves Another 50 from Downtown Jail Amid ACLU Lawsuit Over Jail Conditions

By Erica C. Barnett

Less than a week after a King County Council committee tentatively approved plans to move 50 people from the downtown King County jail to the South Correctional Entity, at a cost to the county of $3.5 million, the downtown jail quietly transferred another 50 minimum-security inmates to the Maleng Regional Justice Center (MRJC) in Kent over the past weekend, emptying out a unit on the downtown jail’s third floor. According to DAJD spokesman Noah Haglund, the majority of the people who are being moved are facing misdemeanor or non-violent felony charges.

The MRJC has suspended most bookings for months because that facility—like the downtown jail—doesn’t have enough staff to book people except by appointment, Haglund said. The 50 people transferred to the Kent jail are being “double-bunked” in a unit that previously housed about 50 people, bringing the total number of people incarcerated in the Kent unit to 104. A single officer will oversee the doubled-up unit, one of the “efficiencies” DAJD director Allen Nance referred to in a memo announcing the move on March 10.

Haglund said the unit has a capacity of 115.

“We base our current staffing on how many individuals in the housing unit are out of their cell at any given time and their classification status,” he said. “One officer can supervise a maximum of 64 people in the dayroom (the “common area” in the unit) at a time; the number of people in the dayroom at any given time will not exceed the maximum levels prior to the recent transfer.” Ideally, Haglund said, “we would prefer a 1:64 ratio for officers to number of people supervised at this facility,” which would require an additional officer, but “there is no single ratio that would apply across all housing units and classification types.”

The King County Corrections Guild President has filed a demand to bargain because of the higher staffing ratio, which union president Dennis Folk says still exceeds the 1:64 ideal. “What they’re saying is, ‘You’re only managing the 40 or 50 that are coming out at one time,’ and we’re like, that’s not the case. We still have all the other people we have to manage” at the same time—people who may need out of their cells for medical care, appointments, and visitation.

“Leadership will be working with staff to develop the safest unit schedules and operational practices. We are committed to increasing the ratio of staff to residents as our staffing improves, but also believe that moving these residents from KCCF to MRJC will improve current living conditions for those in our custody and in turn lower the daily operational challenges for our staff.”—DAJD director Allen Nance

According to Nance, jail “[l]eadership will be working with staff to develop the safest unit schedules and operational practices. We are committed to increasing the ratio of staff to residents as our staffing improves, but also believe that moving these residents from KCCF to MRJC will improve current living conditions for those in our custody and in turn lower the daily operational challenges for our staff.”

The DAJD has struggled to recruit and retain jail guards in its adult and youth jails. told PubliCola the department needs to hire more than 100 net new officers to reach the point where guards no longer receive 2.5 times their regular pay for working voluntary (as opposed to mandatory) overtime shifts. Folk said emptying out the third-floor unit would eliminate the need for one guard.

The downtown jail population, which bottomed out during COVID (when booking restrictions limited the number of people booked for low-level crimes), has rebounded to more than 1,200, without a commensurate uptick in staffing. King County Executive Dow Constantine has pledged to close the downtown jail , but the population has trended in the opposite direction of closure, prompting protests from advocates who argue that the county should stop booking non-violent felonies until the jail can guarantee adequate physical and mental health care and ensure the safety of incarcerated people.

The ACLU of Washington sued King County last month, alleging that conditions at the downtown jail are so bad that they violate a 1998 agreement known as the Hammer settlement, in which the county agreed to address overcrowding and poor medical care, and understaffing at the jail. The DAJD’s recent efforts to transfer people out of the downtown jail are widely viewed as an attempt to come closer to compliance with that settlement.

According to Molly Gilbert, the president of the union that represents the county’s public defenders, moving people to RJC—as opposed to SCORE—could be a positive for defense attorneys, if the people who get moved to Kent are defendants from the area; currently, Department of Public Defense (DPD) attorneys have to travel to downtown Seattle to meet with their Kent-area clients. “However, we have no idea what population they actually moved,” Gilbert added.

Meanwhile, the public defenders’ union is trying to get King County Councilmembers to add an amendment to the legislation approving the contract with SCORE that would spell out DPD’s visitation needs and require a quarterly report on how the contract is going. The full council will take up that legislation, which passed out of committee unanimously, next week.

Legislative Cutoff Fizz: Police Pursuit Bill Moves Forward While Tenant Protections Die

Wednesday was the legislature’s deadline for bills to pass out of their house of origin—meaning if a bill didn’t receive a floor vote yet in either the House or Senate, it’s dead for the year. 

In a session that was supposed to be all about affordable housing, a slate of tenant protection bills—including one capping rent increases at 7 percent per year, and one requiring six months notice of rent hikes of more than 5 percent—both failed to get a floor vote. However, a bill that would reform a state disability benefit by no longer requiring recipients to pay back the funds passed the House and moved on to the Senate. 

One of the most contentious votes of the session happened last Friday, when a coalition of centrist Democrats and Republicans in the Senate defied progressives and passed a new drug possession bill that increases criminal penalties for drugs such as fentanyl, meth, and cocaine and pushes those convicted into coercive treatment. The senate also passed a bill that makes fentanyl test strips legal.

Most of the legislature’s proposed criminal justice reforms—including a bill that would have granted victims of unlawful police actions the right to sue for damages and one raising the age of juvenile sentencing from 8 years to 13—never made it to a floor vote. One bill that did survive reforms the state’s criminal sentencing system so that juvenile convictions no longer lead to longer sentences for crimes people commit as adults.

The bills that survived now move to the opposite house, and in the next month and a half, the legislature will tackle Gov. Inslee’s proposed $70 billion biennial budget before adjourning on April 23. 

The new bill lowers the threshold for police to pursue a person in their car from “probable cause”—which requires more evidence—to “reasonable suspicion” that a crime has been committed.

Also on Wednesday, the senate passed a bill giving police officers additional authority to pursue drivers, using an unusual maneuver to move the legislation forward. A bill on the issue had been moving through the state house, but did not appear likely to make it to the floor by the 5pm deadline for bills to pass out of their original chamber. Senate Bill 5352, sponsored by Sen. John Lovick (D-44, Lake Stevens), had not even been heard in any committee since its introduction, but majority floor leader Jamie Pedersen (D-43, Seattle) made a motion to suspend the rules and put the bill in front of the full body, which then adopted a new version of the bill by Sen. Manka Dhingra (D-45, Redmond).

The new bill lowers the threshold for police to pursue a person in their car from “probable cause”—which requires more evidence—to “reasonable suspicion” that a crime has been committed. The bill would allow police to chase people they suspect have committed violent offenses as well as DUI—currently one of the only instances where reasonable suspicion is the standard. It also allows officers to merely notify a supervising officer that they are initiating a pursuit, rather than receive authorization. Changing the law would roll back reforms the legislature approved in 2021.

Democrats voted down a number of amendments to the new version of the bill, including proposals that would have allowed pursuits for reckless driving and motor vehicle thefts. With many Republicans voting against the bill because they felt it didn’t go far enough, and many Democrats unwilling to change the current pursuit law, the bill passed on a narrow 26 to 23 margin.

“This bill may not be as adequate as I would like, Senator Ann Rivers (R-18, Vancouver), said before voting yes, “[but] I think it’s as good as we’re going to get for now.” Sen. Mark Mullet (D-5, Issaquah) also voted yes. “I voted for this bill [increasing the standard for pursuits] back in 2021,” Mullet said, “but I think the unintended consequence” was that “it became widely known” that police were not going to pursue for most offenses. 

The bill will now go back to the house, where it could go through normal committee review or—because the senate broke with its usual procedure—go directly to the house floor.

After taking much of the afternoon to debate this bill, the Senate was unable to advance some of the other bills on its calendar, including SB 5002, a bill that would have lowered Washington’s blood-alcohol content threshold for a DUI from 0.08% to 0.05%. That bill was next in the list when the Senate adjourned after the 5pm deadline Wednesday.

—Andrew Engelson, Ryan Packer

Amid Lawsuit Over Jail Conditions, County Moves Forward With Controversial Inmate Transfer Plan

By Erica C. Barnett

A King County Council committee tentatively moved forward on an agreement to move up to 150 men currently incarcerated at the downtown King County Correctional Facility to the South Correctional Entity (SCORE), a jail owned jointly by six south King County cities. The contract, which will cost the county around $3.5 million over two years, is supposed to “help King County mitigate the impact of the unprecedented levels of employee vacancies on staff in the Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention,” according to a letter from King County Executive Dow Constantine that accompanied the legislation. Under the agreement, DAJD would initially transfer about 50 men to SCORE starting in April.

PubliCola first reported on the county’s decision to fund the SCORE contract last year.

The county council’s Law, Justice, Health and Human Services Committee moved the agreement forward without recommendation, citing the need to balance concerns raised by attorneys who represent incarcerated people with the abbreviated timeline laid out by Constantine and the county’s Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention, which runs the jail. The council plans to work out the details over the next two to three weeks and adopt the agreement by the end of March.

The union that represents employees at King County’s Department of Public Defense, SEIU 925, believes the proposed agreement fails to address their concerns that moving defendants to SCORE will impede attorneys’ access to their clients and put them at a disadvantage during court proceedings; the union sent a letter to the council laying out their concerns with the contract last night.

Currently, SCORE only allows inmates to access court hearings virtually, and has just one booth where attorneys can talk to their clients and pass documents back and forth, along with several booths where one member of an inmate’s defense team (which might include investigators, paralegals, and mitigation specialists) can communicate with them at a time.

“We frequently have to get documents signed; we frequently have to work through documentation; we frequently need interpreters. Trying to do this over video will be impossible.”—Department of Public Defense union president Molly Gilbert

SCORE also has video visitation booths where visitors can speak with incarcerated people virtually; the jail, unlike those operated by King County, has no in-person visitation.

“Once you get above the misdemeanor level and start talking about felonies, you’re talking about really convoluted court hearings and legal concepts that are difficult to explain,” DPD union president Molly Gilbert told PubliCola. “We frequently have to get documents signed; we frequently have to work through documentation; we frequently need interpreters. Trying to do this over video will be impossible.”

Last November, the union filed a demand to bargain over the proposal to move inmates to SCORE, arguing that the agreement creates changes to their members’ working conditions; the county has not agreed to negotiate with the union.

“I don’t want to be an alarmist here, but we are at a critical stage. Delaying simply creates one more day, one more moment where the opportunities for people in our custody won’t get met.”—Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention director Allen Nance

At Tuesday’s meeting, interim DAJD administrative division director Diana Joy said SCORE had assured the department that it would transfer defendants to court and that attorneys as well as other DPD staff, such as investigators and paralegals, will have direct access to clients.

However, the contract itself says only that “SCORE will provide a minimum of one transport to a King County designated facility every twelve hours for King County inmates newly booked at SCORE or housed at SCORE and requested by King County to be returned.” It says almost nothing about defendants’ access to attorneys and others working on their cases; the sole reference to these rights in the contract is a line stipulating that “confidential telephones or visitation rooms shall be available to a Contract Agency Inmate to communicate with his or her legal counsel.

At Tuesday’s meeting, DAJD director Allen Nance said it was important for the county to move forward on the contract quickly because conditions at the jail have continued to deteriorate amid an ongoing staffing shortage.

“I don’t want to be an alarmist here,” Nance said, “but we are at a critical stage … Delaying simply creates one more day, one more moment where the opportunities for people in our custody won’t get met.”

Understaffing at the jail reached unprecedented levels during the pandemic, as the jail struggled to hire and retain applicants for high-stress jobs that pay less than other law enforcement positions and lately have required frequent mandatory overtime. Currently, according to King County Corrections Guild president Dennis Folk, the jail is 111 guards short of its staffing target—an improvement since last year, when the shortage reached 129 absent guards.

“This is [DAJD’s] way of trying to decrease our numbers [of people] that are in custody, which ultimately results in us having less posts that we need to fill,” Folk said. Removing 50 people from the jail, for example, could eliminate the need to staff one floor of the jail, for example. “I don’t think it will make that big of a dent, but they seem to think it will.”

Guard shortages, combined with a dramatic increase in the number of people housed at the downtown jail, have led to untenable and sometimes dangerous conditions in the jail. In February, the ACLU of Washington filed a lawsuit against the county, alleging that conditions at the jail violate an agreement known as the Hammer settlement, which requires the jail to meet minimal health and safety standards, including adequate access to behavioral and physical health care.

The contract says the inmates who will be transferred to SCORE will be men accused of Class C and “non-violent B level” felonies, such as burglary, auto theft, and  stalking. “SCORE would not be used for people doing service work in King County jails, who have frequent court appearances, or who have significant medical or mental health needs,” the agreement says. Gilbert says a stable group of inmates without “frequent court appearances” doesn’t really exist; everyone in the jail, except people waiting to go to Western State Hospital for competency evaluations, has to appear in court. “We don’t understand what population it is they’re talking about,” she said.

“Yes, it’s challenging, yes, there are tradeoffs, but I think we owe it to the folks who are trying to make the best of a very dangerous situation, to take up their request … and give the best answer we can within the timeline they have asked for.”—King County Councilmember Claudia Balducci

King County Councilmember and committee chair Girmay Zahilay said Tuesday that while “on the one hand, we want to be able to relieve pressure on… the downtown jail,” which is facing “crisis” conditions, “on the other hand, we’ve heard some some downsides,” including the need for defense attorneys to travel to a third jail, on top of the downtown jail and the Norm Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent (which has suspended new bookings) , in order to meet with clients.

Councilmember Claudia Balducci, who worked for DAJD for 15 years and directed the department from 2011 to early 2014, countered that both DPD and the jail itself have asked the county to do something to improve conditions inside the facility. “So yes, it’s challenging, yes, there are tradeoffs, but I think we owe it to the folks who are trying to make the best of a very dangerous situation, to take up their request … and give an answer the best answer we can within the timeline they have asked for.”

Folk, from the jail guards’ union, said that once the jail has 473 guards on staff—the point at which guards who volunteer for extra shifts are no longer eligible for overtime pay at 2.5 times their regular wages—”I want that contract canceled.” Hiring more than 100 new guards presents challenges that go beyond recruitment. One issue, Folk said, is that many new recruits can’t pass the state law enforcement academy’s physical fitness test; in a recent batch of 13 new guards, he said, “over half failed” and had to be let go. Still, he said, the jail has 19 new hires coming on board this month.

In July 2020, King County Executive Dow Constantine pledged to close the downtown jail “in phases” after the end of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the intervening years, the county’s overall jail population has rebounded, reaching about 1,600 (compared to a pre-pandemic average of around 1,900) last year.

New Drug Possession Bill Emphasizes Coercive Treatment

State. Sen. June RobinsonBy Andrew Engelson

Democrats in the legislature are making procedural moves that will decide what the state’s new drug possession law will look like—an exercise that became necessary after the state supreme court’s 2021 ruling Blake v. State of Washington invalidated existing law. 

Whatever bill emerges will correct the element of current law the court found unconstitutional:  that someone who “unknowingly” possesses drugs could still be convicted. But the legislature is also taking the opportunity to debate what the state’s approach to drug use, and an unprecedented overdose crisis, will be. Various camps in this debate favor a criminal justice approach; a coercive treatment approach; or a public health approach focused on decriminalization.

The bill that has emerged from committee in the senate favors the “middle” option—coercive treatment—and amendments added in the past few days double down on that strategy.

Sen. Manka Dhingra (D-45, Redmond), who chairs the Law & Justice committee, is a strong supporter of decriminalization and safe supply. But her bill moving things in that direction,  which would implement recommendations in a report issued in December by the Substance Use Recovery Services Advisory Committee (SURSAC), didn’t have the votes to pass the Senate and never made it out of committee.

What did survive is a bill sponsored by Sen. June Robinson (D-38, Everett), that would make possession of a “small amount” of schedule 2 drugs (which include cocaine, fentanyl, and methamphetamine) a gross misdemeanor and require prosecutors to offer defendants diversion to treatment instead of jail time. 

“We’re basically saying: Upon conviction, you’re auto-enrolled in a substance abuse treatment program. But if for whatever reason you fail, if you choose to exit the program because you don’t feel like doing it—now there’s going to be consequences.”—Sen. Mark Mullet (D-5, Issaquah)

Last Friday, when the bill was in the Ways and Means committee, vice chair Sen. Mark Mullet (D-5, Issaquah) succeeded in adding a major amendment to the bill empowering (and in some cases requiring) judges to impose jail sentences on defendants who fail to complete treatment.

Mullet told PubliCola he filed the amendment with input from Sen. Jesse Salomon (D-32, Shoreline), whose own drug possession bill, which is more punitive than either Dhingra’s or Robinson’s, failed to make it out of committee.

“We’re basically saying: Upon conviction, you’re auto-enrolled in a substance abuse treatment program,” Mullet told PubliCola. “But if for whatever reason you fail, if you choose to exit the program because you don’t feel like doing it—now there’s going to be consequences.”

This sort of language, focused on pushing drug users into treatment and demanding results, mirrors testimony that Salomon, who works as a public defender, gave during a committee hearing for his bill on Feb 6. Introducing that bill, Salomon expressed concerns about an “unacceptable level of public, open drug use,” and then told a story about seeing people using fentanyl outside his child’s day care, lamenting what he called  “a high level of public disorder and a decrease in public safety.” 

“Our current referral system… “ Salomon said in his testimony, “effectively only asks people to get help, but has no consequences when those folks don’t get help.”

Caleb Banta-Green, a researcher on substance use disorder at the University of Washington— and a member of the SURSAC committee that recommended decriminalization—says this approach ignores the realities of opioid and stimulant use. 

“You don’t treat substance use disorder,” Banta-Green said, “You manage it as a chronic relapsing condition. One of the challenges when the criminal legal system is involved is that if you have a return to use, you’re a failure and you’re committing a crime. Rather than: you’re showing symptoms of your disease and we’re going to continue to provide you care.”

Mullet’s amendment would give judges discretion on the first offense, but on the second offense, those who fail to complete treatment will face a minimum of 21 days in jail, and for a third offense a minimum of 45 days—sentences Mullet said are often be knocked down, with good behavior, to 14 days and 30 days, respectively.

“Our hope is that in those 14 days, people can go through that kind of challenging withdrawal process where they don’t have access to substances,” Mullet said. “Then hopefully, at the end of those 14 days, now they’re in a better spot to realize: oh, maybe I should get treatment.”

Banta-Green says this is the approach the state has used for decades, and he believes it’s ineffective and harmful. “Incarceration is not innocuous,” he said. “I think legislators think it’s like having to go to a Motel 6 for the weekend and miss out on some parties.” A drug conviction and jail time can be a “scarlet letter” that limits a person’s future opportunities; it also “dramatically increases [the] risk of overdose,” Banta-Green said.

Two academic studies of people released from Washington state prisons have shown that the majority of deaths among those recently released from prison were overdoses and that within two weeks of release, inmates were 129 times more likely to overdose than the general population. 

Michelle Conley, director of integrated care at REACH, which serves unhoused Seattle residents with substance abuse disorders, says that for many of her clients who end up incarcerated, jail is detrimental to recovery. “People are traumatized by jail,” Conley said. “And then we’re 15 steps back from where they were. As providers we have to engage with them and rebuild trust… to make sure they see us as a provider and not just a part of the system.”

Even the bill’s seeming compromise between criminalization and decriminalization—coercive treatment—is problematic, Conley said.

Conley said the expectation that someone can be pushed into recovery with one session of 30 to 90-day inpatient treatment is unrealistic, especially if they’re released from treatment without ongoing support. “Churning people through this kind of treatment mill, and then sending them back on the streets, really serves as little more than a moment of respite,” Conley said. “Especially when people are released back to the same circumstances that drove them, oftentimes, to aggressive use.”

Not everyone who uses drugs needs to go to treatment, Banta-Green said, and people who would benefit from services “don’t want the treatment we have,” which often takes an all-or-nothing approach to sobriety. Instead of coercing people into conventional treatment with the threat of jail time, Banta-Green believes the state should implement one of the SURSAC committee’s recommendations: aggressively funding “health engagement hubs” that offer a range of services and treatment options to people who use drugs, including comprehensive harm reduction, health care, mental health care, addiction treatment, and medications.

“I absolutely believe that the criminal justice system is not the right place to deal with addiction. It’s just—this is where we are. And we need to move to provide alternatives, to provide other systems, and to fund and destigmatize other ways of helping people through addiction.”—Sen. June Robinson (D-38, Everett)

Banta-Green’s research team has worked with local public health agencies to establish pilot hubs in Seattle, Kennewick, and Walla Walla. He says the state would ideally have one of these hubs for every 200,000 residents, for a total of about 38 such facilities statewide.

Robinson’s bill directs the Washington Health Care Authority to “make sufficient funding available” to create health hubs within a 2-hour drive of all residents at the ratio to population Banta Green recommends. The bill also appropriates a $51 million—much of it from the state’s legal settlement with prescription opioid manufacturers—to fund opioid use disorder medications, crisis relief centers, and grants to LEAD and other programs that offer alternatives to arrest or jail time.  

Among other provisions, the bill legalizes handing out drug paraphernalia (such as smoking supplies) statewide, but an amendment added in the Ways and Means committee by Sen. Keith Wagoner (R-19, Sedro Woolley) would allow cities to opt out of that provision.

Dhingra added language to the bill that would set up a working group to study the creation of a safer drug supply system. Canada has incrementally started to experiment with prescribing pharmaceutical-grade drugs such as fentanyl to drug users to reduce the risk of overdose from street drugs, whose contents are unpredictable. However, that language also got stripped out of the bill in Ways and Means.

Following a year when King County had a record 998 fatal drug overdoses, all options should be on the table, Dhingra said.

 “If you want to help people get to recovery,” she said, “you have to make sure they’re alive in order to do that.”

Sen. Robinson, who sponsored the bill now moving forward, told PubliCola she believes her legislation offers a politically viable balance between restoring some criminal penalties and providing options for treatment.

Robinson, who has a masters in public health, said, “I truly believe all the research” about the need for a variety of approaches to drug use and addiction. “I absolutely believe that the criminal justice system is not the right place to deal with addiction,” she said. “It’s just—this is where we are. And we need to move to provide alternatives, to provide other systems, and to fund and destigmatize other ways of helping people through addiction.”

Robinson’s bill will likely get a floor vote this week, and it’s also likely that supporters of each competing approach to drug policy will offer a frenzy of competing floor amendments to shape the final bill. 

Qualified Immunity Bill Passes Key Hurdle as Other Criminal Justice Reforms Stall Out

By Andrew Engelson

Several criminal justice reform measures moved past last Friday’s deadline for bills to pass out of their committees of origin, including a bill sponsored by Rep. My-Linh Thai (D–41, Bellevue) that would give victims of unlawful police actions the right to sue for damages.

In Washington, and nearly every other state, “qualified immunity” is a doctrine established by the US Supreme Court that protects law enforcement officers from most civil misconduct lawsuits unless a person can prove that a previous case with very similar circumstances resulted in an officer or agency being held accountable. (Qualified immunity does not apply to use of excessive force.) In the past two legislative sessions, Rep. Thai introduced similar bills that would eliminate qualified immunity, but both failed to pass. 

This time around, Thai’s bill no longer includes provisions giving the state attorney general’s office power to investigate and bring cases against police officers or law enforcement agencies for violating a person’s constitutional rights. As a result, it might have a better chance passing the House. (A separate bill, also sponsored by Thai, would give the attorney general the authority to investigate and sue law enforcement and corrections agencies.)

Thai’s bill could face a tougher road in the Senate, where police unions, local law enforcement agencies and the Association of Washington Cities have wielded considerable clout opposing similar bills in the past. Thirty-five states have tried and failed to eliminate qualified immunity since the protests over the murder of George Floyd in 2020, and only Colorado succeeded passing a law in 2020 that allows victims of misconduct to sue law enforcement agencies.

“Without accountability, there cannot be true justice,” Thai said in a press release. “This bill provides avenues to justice for victims of police misconduct. By holding municipalities accountable when their employees violate a resident’s state constitutional rights, I hope we can encourage them to properly train, support, and discipline their police forces.”

Candice Bock, a spokesperson for the Association of Washington cities, said the organization still opposed to Rep. Thai’s bill. “Our concern is that it’s not going to really lead to greater accountability – which I know is what the proponents hoped for,” Bock said. “It’s going to result in an increase in claims and litigation costs, and cities settling those claims because the litigation costs are too expensive.”

Two other bills to reform the state’s juvenile justice system made it out of their committees last week. One bill, sponsored by Sen. Yasmin Trudeau (D-27, Tacoma), would raise the minimum age for a child to be prosecuted in juvenile court from 8 years old to 13. The other, sponsored by Rep. David Hackney (D-11, Tukwila), would reform the state’s criminal sentencing system so that juvenile convictions no longer lead to longer sentences for crimes people commit as adults.

Bills that failed to make the deadline included one that would have prevented evidence gathered during police misconduct from being admissible in court, another that would have limited the use of solitary confinement, and one that would have allowed judges to consider releasing people who are serving long sentences for crimes they committed before the age of 25.