By Erica C. Barnett
A task force convened by Mayor Bruce Harrell to come up with proposals to address illegal drug use in public spaces has been meeting for several weeks to discuss how Seattle’s court system can address a potential influx of cases from the City Attorney Ann Davison’s office. This summer, the council is expected to pass a new law empowering Davison’s office to prosecute people who use drugs in public by aligning Seattle’s municipal code with a new state law making public drug use or simple possession a gross misdemeanor, rather than a felony.
The city council rejected the proposal last month; Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who cast the deciding vote, plans to bring the measure back this summer and vote for it, a switch he says he feels comfortable making now that the task force’s work is underway. Only one of three sub-groups had met as of last week: The one focused on how the court will respond to a potential influx of new drug cases.
After just a couple of meetings, there appears to be broad consensus (with one exception that I’ll get to in a moment) in favor of expanding the Vital program, which provides intensive services to people with behavioral health issues, including addiction, and LEAD, a program run by Purpose Dignity Action (formerly the Public Defender Association, or PDA) that offers services and case management to people before they are arrested.
Even Davison, who unilaterally withdrew the city from community court earlier this year—ending a program that allowed some people to avoid charges by participating in short-term programs—is reportedly open to expanding programs that divert drug users away from jail.
The idea, according to Councilmember Andrew Lewis, is to focus on “things that fall way short of the court” level and “keep things as far away from the court as possible,” since the court has essentially no extra capacity to take on a flood of new drug cases.
The task force includes representatives from Davison’s office, the PDA, Seattle Municipal Court, and—since last week—the King County Department of Public Defense, which was excluded from Harrell’s initial list.
The group, according to Lewis, generally agrees the city should focus on “things that fall way short of the court” level and “keep [cases] as far away from the court as possible,” since Seattle Municipal Court has essentially no extra capacity to take on a flood of new drug cases.
“This conversation is really laying bare that a lot of policy discussions are based on assumptions that aren’t true,” Lewis said. “It really did call out that we could arrest everyone downtown for smoking fentanyl and the King County Jail wouldn’t be able to book them—so where does that leave us?”
The exception to this consensus, according to multiple sources, is City Councilmember Sara Nelson, who has expressed support for a new local misdemeanor drug court that would push people into long-term treatment instead of diversion or services based on harm reduction, such as medication assisted treatment and focused case management. Nelson—who has objected to funding PDA-run programs in the past—supports an abstinence-only approach to addiction and has argued that programs that provide methadone and suboxone to opiate addicts are “not aimed at long-term recovery.”
King County has a special drug court for people facing felony drug-related charges; defendants who opt in must go through a rigorous, abstinence-based program that includes mandatory treatment, frequent drug testing, and regular court appearances. The program is high-risk and high-reward: If a defendant completes the program, which lasts a minimum of 10 months, the charges are dropped. If they don’t, the judge can find them guilty and sentence them for their original felony, which could mean a long jail sentence.
For misdemeanors, the reward at the end of the process would be comparatively minuscule—the dismissal of low-level charges that don’t usually lead to jail sentences in the first place. It’s unclear how many, if any, misdemeanor defendants would opt in to such a court; currently, every drug court in Washington state is focused on felony-level offenses.
The group Harrell announced last month includes two other task forces, in addition to the one focused on the courts, that will discuss treatment and enforcement.
Lewis said that now that the work groups are meeting to discuss the best way to respond to public drug use, the legislation making public use a gross misdemeanor in Seattle is “almost a Macguffin”—a device that gets the plot going, but isn’t particularly significant in itself.
PDA co-director Lisa Daugaard agrees with that assessment. In an op/ed for PubliCola last month, she said the city’s primary focus should be on investing in evidence-based approaches to drug use and homelessness, regardless of whether the council gives Davison the authority to prosecute drug users.