On Feb. 25, the Washington Supreme Court issued an extraordinary opinion with far-reaching consequences. With a 5-4 majority, the court in State v. Shannon Blake declared Washington’s felony drug possession statute to be void.

That decision is retroactive and will affect tens of thousands of convictions going back 50 years. Ironically, this abrupt approach to decriminalization will burden the criminal justice system, taxpayers and families of those who suffer from substance abuse disorders for years to come. 

Reasonable minds can disagree on whether our drug laws were too draconian. The truth in Washington is that harsh penalties for simple possession of drugs were eliminated nearly 20 years ago. Washington’s prosecutors played a key role in supporting those changes and directing the savings from reduced incarceration costs to counties for improved drug treatment.

Many prosecutors, like me, have treated first and second drug-possession offenses as misdemeanors, or diverted drug crimes into drug courts, where punishment is exchanged for closely monitored treatment.

The impacts of the Blake decision are still being analyzed across the state. Several things are clear: Thousands of prisoners and offenders under community supervision for all types of crimes will be entitled to new sentencing hearings because their criminal history included a drug crime.

Tens of thousands of defendants will be entitled to refunds of fines and fees they paid. Responding to just these effects will require an army of court personnel, not to mention local taxpayer funds for reimbursements. 

For 50 years, the Legislature has told prosecutors how they wanted drug crimes prosecuted and punished. For 40 years, the Supreme Court has told us that those laws were constitutional.

Last month, five members of that court chose not to wait for the drug reform that was plainly visible on the horizon and saddled prosecutors, defenders, judges, court clerks and county budgets with the immense burden of cleaning up and paying for the state’s mess.

The Legislature and the governor need to quickly respond to this crisis. They must support the local jurisdictions that were only enforcing state laws. They should create a centrally administered drug conviction reimbursement fund.

Furthermore, the state must swiftly craft smart laws and programs to effectively address our serious drug problem and the damage it inflicts on Washington families.

Greg Banks is the Island County Prosecutor. He can be reached at ICProsecutor@islandcountywa.gov

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