Tag: drug possession

Despite Concerns, Seattle Council Could Criminalize Drug Possession and Use in Seattle Next Week

By Erica C. Barnett

Next Tuesday, the Seattle City Council could adopt legislation to incorporate parts of a new state law criminalizing public drug use and simple possession, adopted during a short special session earlier this year, into the city’s municipal code. The proposal, sponsored by City Councilmembers Sara Nelson and Alex Pedersen and backed by City Attorney Ann Davison, would empower the city attorney’s office to prosecute people for possessing or using illegal drugs for the first time in the city’s history.

The legislature adopted the new law, which makes public drug use and simple possession a gross misdemeanor, during a special session earlier this year. The law is a response to a state supreme court decision known as State v. Blake, which overturned a state law making simple drug possession a felony. The legislature passed a temporary law making possession a felony while it hashed out a more comprehensive proposal, which passed during a special session this year. The new law makes drug possession and public use a misdemeanor, effectively bumping drug cases down from King County Prosecutor Leesa Manion’s office to Davison.

If the council doesn’t pass the new law, Manion would still have the authority to charge drug misdemeanors in addition to felonies, but is unlikely to do so; in a letter to council members, Manion said that even if her office “magically had the staff and resources necessary to take on a new body of work, we would focus those resources on felony prosecutions because the PAO has misdemeanor and gross misdemeanor jurisdiction in only unincorporated areas of King County.  … The City Attorney’s Office is better equipped to handle these cases immediately[.]”

During the year-long period when drug possession was a felony, Manion’s office only prosecuted two possession cases, according to an analysis by city council central staff. That same analysis says that although Davison’s office “has not explicitly stated how they would act upon the authority to charge knowing possession or use of illegal or controlled substances,” a Seattle Municipal Court analysis estimates an additional 700 to 870 cases a year, “based on historical filings before the COVID-19 pandemic” and the state’s own estimate of 12,000 new drug cases annually across the state.

In a letter to the council, the union representing King County Department of Public Defense employees, SEIU 925, called the legislation “an unconscionable abuse by the City Prosecutor, which dismisses solid empirical evidence that the War on Drugs and increased incarceration cause widespread harm throughout our community.

How the new proposals will play out in practice, if they pass, is a matter of significant debate. Opponents say they will empower police to do “stop and frisk” searches and arrest drug users with impunity, clogging up courtrooms and crowding the understaffed county jail. Proponents say the changes will create consequences for people committing crimes and—as Nelson put it in a press statement—”remove any further cause for inaction on the most critical public health and public safety issue of our time.” A third group—let’s call them reluctant proponents—argue that the new laws won’t have much impact, because the city hasn’t prioritized drug cases in the past and shows no sign of changing course now.

In a letter to the council, the union representing King County Department of Public Defense employees, SEIU 925, called the legislation “an unconscionable abuse by the City Prosecutor, which dismisses solid empirical evidence that the War on Drugs and increased incarceration cause widespread harm throughout our community.” Criminalizing drug use at the local level, the letter continued, “would create the same dynamic within SPD which led to the New York Police Department’s ‘stop and frisk’ programs,” which “ultimately led to a class-action lawsuit from public defenders in New York on behalf of their clients.” The letter was signed by all four SEIU chapters in Seattle.

During an online “emergency teach-in” to discuss the proposal on Tuesday, Drug Policy Alliance director Kassandra Frederique said the pressure to re-criminalize drugs in Seattle was part of a nationwide trend toward more punitive approaches to drug use and addiction. “Not only are we criminalizing, or re-litigating, issues that we have decided were inappropriate [for criminalization], we are now creating new crimes in order as a way to deal with the issues at hand,” Frederique said.

A majority of the City Council would probably agree that criminalizing drugs is not the best approach to the rising number of people using and selling drugs in public. However, the legislation may pass with a slim majority, if Councilmembers Andrew Lewis and Dan Strauss—both up for reelection this year—join Nelson, Pedersen, and Council President Debora Juarez in voting for the law. Both were reportedly still considering their votes this weekend.

Why would council members vote for a law criminalizing drug use in Seattle? Politics. Three council incumbents are up for reelection this year, and two—Andrew Lewis and Dan Strauss—are facing challenges from the right that could push them into voting for the law to avoid handing political fodder to their opponents. (Tammy Morales, in District 2, is also up for reelection but has already said she will vote against the bill). Although neither Strauss nor Lewis has said publicly how they plan to vote—in a recent candidate questionnaire, Strauss told the Seattle Times he was a “maybe” on the law—if they were to vote against the bill, opponents aligned with Davison and Nelson could blame them, and the council generally,  for tying the city attorney’s hands and allowing open drug use to continue. The campaign ads practically write themselves.

While it’s true that the city generally incorporates new state laws into its code, the proposed criminalization bill itself actually breaks from that convention, by picking and choosing which parts of the state law the city should adopt.

On Tuesday, expect to hear the argument that it would be highly unusual for the council not to incorporate new state laws into its municipal code, and the counter-argument that refusing to criminalize drug possession at the local level sends an important message that Seattle’s priorities are different than the state’s.

While it’s true that the city generally incorporates new state laws into its code, the proposed criminalization bill itself actually breaks from that convention, by picking and choosing which parts of the state law the city should adopt. According to the council staff analysis, the ordinance “only adopts some portions of the state bill” because some of the provisions include “work that SPD and CAO are not focused upon.” So the council does have, and is already exercising, discretion when it decides whether to make local laws conform with the state’s.

Even the bill’s proponents have acknowledged that the police and courts are unlikely to prioritize low-level drug cases over more serious misdemeanors, such as domestic violence and DUI; the Seattle Police Department is currently hundreds of officers shy of its hiring goals, and the city attorney’s office, county public defense department, and Seattle Municipal Court are also short-staffed.

The state law encourages prosecutors to refer defendants t diversion and treatment programs, but that would require additional funding beyond what the city has already provided for new adult pre-trial diversion programs. (The funding has been sitting at the Human Services Department, unspent, since the council allocated it in 2021.) The city attorney’s office has said it plans to use those diversion funds, once they’re available, for a different purpose: Taking on cases that would have gone to community court, a therapeutic court from which Davison unilaterally withdrew the city last week.

“Building out the needed infrastructure to be able to address root causes of these issues and get individuals into treatment and services may require time and resources,” the central staff memo notes.

Some—including PubliCola guest columnist Lisa Daugaard, who argues that the outcome of the drug law debate is largely beside the point—are unconvinced that the new law will result in mass arrests, prosecutions, and jail, because the city has already reduced its alliance on punitive strategies, even before the Blake decision forced the legislature to pass a new state law. Mayor Harrell, Daugaard wrote, oversees SPD, “and has gone out of his way to make clear that he has no intention of arresting, jail or referring drug users for prosecution.”

Opponents of the proposed new drug laws say that argument is short-sighted, because priorities can change, but laws are permanent. “It is extremely dangerous precedent for a bill to be passed that criminalizes [drug use] and where our elected officials try to placate advocates and community members by saying that they will that they will be able to manage it,” Frederique said during Tuesday’s teach-in. “Those people are temporary actors. Election happen all the time. And what people will look at is the law.”

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.

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.