Tag: drug possession

Cash Benefits, Drug Possession Bills Move Forward

Michele Thomas of the Washington Low-Income Housing Alliance testifies about benefits for low-income people at a senate committee last week.

By Andy Engelson

Two bills that would have a significant impact on poor and vulnerable people moved forward in the legislature this week. 

The first —a bill sponsored by Rep. Emily Alvarado (D-34, Seattle) that would end the requirement that people who receive the state’s Aged, Blind, and Disabled (ABD) cash assistance program pay back these benefits once they qualify for federal disability aid—passed out of the senate’s human services committee last week. ABD recipients are generally some of the lowest-income people in the state: 57 percent struggle with mental illness and 33 percent are homeless. The reform bill is scheduled for a hearing in the Senate Ways and Means Committee on Thursday, the final hurdle before a floor vote.

In testimony before the human services committee, Michele Thomas of the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance said ending the pay-back requirement is long overdue. 

“It changes an unfair, decades-long practice of forcing people to forgo their SSI payments that [impoverished people] desperately need,” Thomas said. “Please understand that at the same time folks are required to make these back payments, they also lose their eligibility for the Housing & Essential Needs [HEN] rental assistance program, which is already furthering their instability.” HEN is a federal program that provides emergency rent and utility assistance and access to basic household supplies to people with disabilities.

A bill that would have better aligned HEN and ABD benefits and guaranteed at least 12 months of HEN support to recipients failed to pass out of a senate committee earlier this session. 

The second bill that’s moving forward is Sen June Robinson’s (D-38, Everett) bill revising the state’s drug possession policy in response to the 2021 Blake state Supreme Court ruling that found the previous law unconstitutional. The bill, which makes possessing small amounts of drugs, such as fentanyl and meth, a gross misdemeanor and requires prosecutors to divert people into coercive treatment, received a hearing in the House Community Safety, Justice, and Reentry committee on Monday.

In testimony to the committee, Sen. Robinson gave her bill mixed reviews. Centrist Senate Democrats modified the bill substantially with amendments, including a provision that forces those who drop out of court-mandated treatment to serve jail time. “My goal is to find a balance, and that is very hard to do,” Robinson told the committee. “A balance between compassion and lots of options for treatment, and—some people call them off-ramps. But, options for diversion, treatment, and services for folks who are found to be in possession of illegal substances. And also to give our communities the tools that they are asking for in these situations.”

“I wouldn’t say it’s perfect or exactly the right balance, but you will grapple with that,” Robinson told her colleagues in the House.

Legislators May Prescribe Treatment for Drug Possession; More Legislative Staffers Unionize

1. One of the biggest conflicts in this year’s legislative session will be over how to replace a temporary drug possession law passed in 2021 in response to the a decision called Blake v. State of Washington, in which the state supreme court ruled that an existing law banning drug possession was unconstitutional because it criminalized “unknowing” as well as knowing drug possession.

The interim law, which expires in July, shifted most drug possession from a class C felony to a simple misdemeanor and required police to refer people people to treatment or other services for the first two offenses. Democrats have introduced three competing replacement bills that range from increasing criminal penalties for drug possession to decriminalization.

Last week, Sen. Manka Dhingra (D-45, Redmond), who chairs the Law & Justice committee, introduced a bill that largely decriminalizes possession of “personal amounts” of drugs. The legislation leans heavily on the recommendations of the Substance Use Recovery Services Advisory Committee (SURSAC), which was established in the interim bill and issued a report in December. The committee recommended decriminalizing possession of small amounts of drugs—similar to laws recently passed in Oregon and British Columbia—as well as exploring the creation of safe supply system, which would create a regulated, medical-grade supply of controlled substances to drug users. A solid body of academic research supports safe supply as a key to preventing overdose deaths.

However, Sen. Dhingra has acknowledged her bill doesn’t have the votes to pass in the Senate, telling PubliCola,  “Even if the policy [the SURSAC committee] designed doesn’t have the votes in the legislature, it’s important that their recommendations are represented in the debates as the legislature moves forward.”

Sen Jesse Salomon (D-32, Shoreline) has introduced a bill backed by a handful of Democrats and Republicans that would re-criminalize drug possession (addressing the issue raised in Blake by adding the word “knowingly” to existing law); increase penalties for drug possession’ and mandate treatment.

But the bill that seems most likely to emerge from committee is one sponsored by Sen. June Robinson (D-38, Everett), which reinstates the 2021 law but encourages participation in pre-trial diversion, including treatment, as an alternative to criminal penalties. 

2. Earlier this month, the state Public Employee Relations Commission ruled that a group of deputy city clerks and strategic advisors in the city’s legislative department could join the Professional and Technical Employees Local 17 (PROTEC17) bargaining unit, which also represents employees of the city council’s Central Staff, the city archivist, and the City Auditor.

Not everyone at the clerk’s office supported unionizing. The office is a motley group of employees who do very different kinds of jobs, under very different daily working conditions; they include IT professionals, staffers who read and decipher legislation on the fly during council meetings, and aides who deal directly with the public.

It’s unclear which issues the union will help employees of the clerk’s office tackle, but there are plenty of possibilities. Unlike employees in some city departments, many of those in the clerk’s office have had to return to (or remain at) their desks at City Hall, regardless of whether their job is public-facing or something that could be done from home. Some employees have job titles that don’t obviously correspond to their actual duties, resulting in lower pay than if they had a different job classification—a frequent complaint in many city departments. Workers with HR complaints have recourse to an ombudsperson, but their jobs are at-will and their ultimate boss is the city council president, a rotating position that’s currently filled by Debora Juarez.

Although it’s somewhat unusual for white-collar city workers, including many in highly compensated strategic advisor jobs, to unionize, there is a precedent in the legislative department: The clerk’s office is following in the footsteps the council’s central staff, who joined Protec17 in 2019.

—Andrew Engelson, Erica C. Barnett

Lawsuit Challenges State and Counties to Refund Financial Penalties for Drug Charges

Pierce County residents attend a 2019 event to receive legal assistance in reducing their LFO debts (Civil Survival Project)

By Paul Kiefer

A nonprofit representing formerly incarcerated Washington residents is suing the state and its 39 counties in an attempt to address one of the loose ends left by the state supreme court’s landmark opinion in February ruling all simple drug possession charges unconstitutional.

The Seattle-based Civil Survival Project filed the class action lawsuit on Thursday in an effort to stop the state, county superior courts and private contractors from collecting Legal Financial Obligations (LFOs) tied to simple drug possession convictions. An LFO is a financial penalty that a court imposes when convicting a person of a crime; the penalty is broken into components, including a fee to cover the costs of filing the criminal case and a fee to cover the collection of a DNA sample.

The lawsuit also asks the state and its counties to provide refunds to those who have already paid court-mandated LFOs at any time since 1971, when the state’s strict liability drug possession law—now unconstitutional—went into effect.

“There may be at least hundreds, and possibly thousands, of people who still owe [legal financial obligations] towards convictions that are no longer constitutional.”— Prachi Dave, Public Defender Association

Courts and prosecutors statewide are still scrambling to respond to the state supreme court’s decision, known as State of Washington v. Blake, leaving the Civil Survival Project without a clear picture of how many people owe LFOs for simple drug possession convictions.

“We’re estimating there may be at least hundreds, and possibly thousands, of people who still owe LFOs towards convictions that are no longer constitutional,” said Prachi Dave, one of the attorneys bringing the lawsuit and the policy and advocacy director of the Public Defender Association. “The lawsuit is a first step towards learning more about exactly how many people are impacted, and exactly how many people are owed refunds.”

LFO debt can vary greatly. Before a 2018 change in state law in 2018, every LFO—which can range from hundreds to thousands of dollars—carried a 12 percent annual interest rate. Christina Zawadieh, a peer counselor at a social service agency in Everett who joined the lawsuit as a plaintiff to represent those with LFO debts, told PubliCola that she owes more than $3,000 for possession charges in Snohomish County. Even as the interest fees outgrew her original debts, she has continued to send money to the county’s superior court. “I have to do it to avoid having a warrant issued for failure to pay,” she said.

Dave added that there is currently no clear way to determine whether any counties in Washington have continued to collect LFOs after the state supreme court’s decision in February. The King County Superior Sourt has already stopped collecting LFO payments; according to the court’s clerk, the county now returns LFO payments it receives.

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An additional complexity, Dave said, is the checkerboard of regulations governing the private collections agencies that often contract with county courts to collect unpaid LFOs. Unlike the courts themselves,  the collections agencies can garnish the wages of people with unpaid LFOs. Additionally, depending on the county, collections agencies charge between 18 and 100 percent of their original LFO as a “collection fee”—in addition to the interest payments expected by the court. Once the state can ascertain how much money private collections agencies have extracted in the form of collection fees from people with simple drug possession convictions, Dave said that the plaintiffs hope “to ensure that the collections agencies return that money in addition to the LFOs themselves.”

At the moment, the Washington Association of Counties roughly estimates that the Blake decision will require more than $80 million in refunds to people cleared of their drug possession convictions. Counties will also have to carry the estimated costs of re-sentencing current inmates to reflect the state’s updated drug possession laws—roughly $65 million.