By Mark Roe
Recently U.S. Attorney Eric Holder in Washington, D.C., announced a new “Smart on Crime” policy shift for federal law enforcement’s approach to illegal drugs. His recognition that new strategies are needed at the federal level is welcome. While very supportive of his position, I want to make sure that people in Snohomish County know that in this Washington, we have been employing most, if not all, of the AGs proposed new strategies for years already. The changes the AG desires are changes that started here decades ago. As a consequence we have few minor offenders in expensive prison cells, and instead provide more opportunities for them to get clean and improve themselves, much as the AG recommended.
Our prison cells have long been inhabited primarily by those convicted of sex offenses and violent crimes.
In prosecutors’ offices across this state, we long ago adopted innovative, smart and efficient programs like drug courts, diversion programs, and other alternatives to prison or jail for relatively low-level offenders. In doing so, leaders like our own U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan; King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg; my predecessor, Janice Ellis; and dozens of prosecuting attorneys across this state, including myself, have pioneered, piloted, practiced and passed on what they’ve learned to others in our profession. As a result, the truth is that few first-time nonviolent or drug offenders are sent to prison in our state, and it’s been that way for some time.
My concern is that the Attorney General’s comments might mislead folks into believing Washington state’s prisons really are filled with the comparative small fry he referred to. They are NOT.
Current Washington state prison populations reflect that approximately 75 percent of Washington inmates are there for violent crimes, sex offenses, or for victimizing a child. Having spent much of my 27 year career handling almost exclusively those types of cases, I offer no apology for long prison sentences. I frankly wish some were longer.
Another 13 percent of Washington inmates are “in” for property crimes like breaking into your house, or stealing your identity and destroying your credit, though it usually takes multiple convictions to get to prison for those non-violent crimes. A mere 8.7 percent (down from 26 percent in 1993) of Department of Corrections inmates are serving time for drug offenses, usually either after racking up many such offenses, dealing or manufacturing, or providing illegal drugs to children.
The AG’s sensible call was for this country to stop sending relatively low-level, first-time offenders to prison for many years. Here in this state, though, as you can see, we pretty much stopped doing that years ago. The general law-abiding public usually has no opportunity or desire to learn such demographic details of the state’s prison population, and therefore might understandably assume that the United States attorney general was speaking for prosecutors everywhere. He wasn’t. Nor could he be expected to be up-to-date on what individual states or counties were doing across the broad expanse that is America.
Like the old EF Hutton TV commercials, though, when someone like the attorney general for the whole United States talks, people listen. Because the AG says we are incarcerating too many minor offenders, some may believe that it must be happening all over. For the most part, though, it isn’t happening here; at least not this century.
Unfortunately, perpetuating the myth that all our prisons are full of small-time offenders is somehow strangely comforting to many, and some seize any opportunity to bash “the system.” It gives them another chance to express their outrage at a faceless government bureaucracy that they already believe is screwing everything up and wasting their money. On top of that, it fosters the fantasy that adequately funding the criminal justice system would be easy (like the big red button from Staples) if we just quit locking up all the wrong folks.
Then we could get busy doing all the stuff we ought to be doing, and without raising taxes! It’s a perfect solution, and genius in its simplicity. Except that we cannot achieve any substantial savings in Snohomish County or Washington state by releasing first-time nonviolent and drug offenders from prison, because we generally aren’t sending them there to begin with. So few of them, in fact, that Washington state overall ranks 44th out of 50 states in our overall incarceration rate. Only 6 states use prison at rates lower than we do, yet Washington has still seen significant decreases in violent and sexual offenses. That’s the good news, because though we can always do better, clearly we are doing something right in reserving our limited prison space for the most serious and repeat offenders.
In my office, we began participating in drug court many years ago and have repeatedly expanded it to help get addicts off drugs and stop cycling them in and out of custody. Since well before I began my career here in 1986, we have treated most first-time offenders who possess small amounts of illegal drugs in a way that allows them to avoid the stigma of a felony and addresses their drug problem. We continuously explore different approaches, and last year created Therapeutic Alternatives to Prosecution (TAP) as a way to also divert many other nonviolent offenders away from the treadmill of incarceration.
We participate in a misdemeanor mental health court, and a drug court for juveniles. Even for many drug offenders who are sentenced to prison, we have treatment-based sentencing alternatives. Still, I bet most people would agree that violent criminals, sex offenders, and drunk drivers deserve a much sterner stance, and have to be held accountable. That often means punishment — and being locked up. We do our best at that, too.
The job of protecting the community has gotten continually harder since 2008. We have seen our Snohomish County deputy prosecutor positions cut in half (from 14 to 7) in the unit that prosecutes drunk drivers, and generally had to cut everywhere in our office except our Special Assault Unit. (Prosecuting sex offenses and crimes against children is the very last place we will cut.) As a result of the recession, we have far fewer people to review, charge and try cases, and are generally outnumbered by defense attorneys with caseloads much lower than ours.
I have confidence that this year our county executive and council will do what they can to help level the playing field a bit, because they know safe roads and communities are the single most important duty of county government. They also know that, like Jenny Durkan’s and Dan Satterberg’s offices, here in my office we have long been prioritizing offenders and prison space in the very way Attorney General Holder now wants to emulate in the other Washington and across the county.
We don’t always get it right, and even when we do, virtually every decision a prosecutor makes still angers at least someone. I am writing this to let you know that in terms of who we are sending to prison and who we aren’t, I think we are getting that one “right,” and I wish Attorney General Holder every success in his “new” approach. We think it has worked well for us.
Mark Roe is the Snohomish County Prosecuting Attorney.