Bill would speed handling of invalidated drug convictions

There were a quarter million convictions under a drug law recently struck down by the state Supreme Court.

OLYMPIA — It’s been nearly a year since the state Supreme Court struck down the half-century-old Washington law that made simple drug possession a felony.

That ruling, known as the Blake decision, put thousands of people in line to get their names cleared by the courts and money back for fines they paid.

Enter Senate Bill 5663, which lawmakers hope will streamline the process from start to finish.

It requires the state Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC), in concert with superior, municipal and district courts, to compile a report identifying every person convicted of simple drug possession since 1971, when the law took effect. It also must include those with “nonconviction data” due to completing a diversion program for simple drug possession.

The bill gives the AOC six months to produce lists of those subject to Blake who are incarcerated, and on active or inactive supervision.

That information will go to county prosecutors and public defenders to accelerate the process of resentencings and vacating convictions already under way.

And the bill creates a “refund bureau” run by the Department of Revenue. This is intended to be a one-stop shop for the estimated 150,000 people who could be owed money when their convictions are vacated, according to a fiscal analysis.

On Friday, representatives of cities, counties and prosecutors endorsed the bill at a Senate Ways and Means Committee hearing.

The Blake decision “presented an unprecedented challenge” to the criminal justice system, Juliana Roe of the Washington State Association of Counties, told the panel. The legislation will get cases handled and refunds distributed more efficiently, she said.

Representatives of the courts, judges and public defenders embraced the approach. But they want language tweaked to provide courts more time to compile the reports and greater clarity on resolving refund disputes.

There is opposition from the Department of Revenue, whose leaders don’t want to house the “refund bureau.”

Agency staff is tapped out with other big chores like setting up the Working Families Tax Credit and capital gains tax, they say. Gov. Jay Inslee — to whom they answer — is backing them up.

“We do not have the bandwidth to also take on a refund bureau,” Steve Ewing, the agency’s legislative liaison, testified. “And if something as complex and important as the refund bureau is to function as intended and serve Washingtonians expeditiously, it needs to be housed in the right department.”

The magnitude of the challenge posed by the Blake ruling is immense.

There have been 262,767 convictions for felony drug possession since 1971, according to the Washington State Patrol. About 10,000 have been tackled so far, according to estimates provided lawmakers in January.

Snohomish County Prosecutor Adam Cornell on Friday said around 20,000 cases in the county may be subject to Blake.

The vast majority will involve vacating convictions for individuals who’ve served time. About 300 to 400 people will need to be re-sentenced, he said. Most of them are in prison now, convicted of multiple crimes including the invalidated law. Roughly 80 resentencings have been completed since the ruling, he said.

As of early January, refunds totaling nearly $36,000 had been issued. That covered 52 cases, he said.

Like his fellow prosecutors, he supports the legislation because it will improve efficiencies in handling cases and “it puts the burden on the state to pay the refunds, which is where it should be.”

The Senate panel is expected to approve the bill by Monday and send it to the Senate Rules Committee.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @dospueblos.

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