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July 5, 2023

Notable data on Washington state trends impacted by the pandemic and a felony drug possession law declared unconstitutional

Given robust debates over the impacts of the "war on drugs" on incarceration rates and other aspects of criminal justice systems, I found fascinating this recent press piece titled "WA felony prison and jail sentences fell by 47% in 5 years. Here’s why."  I encourage folks to check out the full article which includes and array of graphics that report on an array of data developments in The Evergreen State.  Here are some excerpts:

With the number of Washington residents headed to jail or prison at a modern low, one might expect Christie Hedman to be declaring victory.  As executive director of the Washington Defender Association, Hedman’s organization has been at the forefront of a justice reform effort keenly interested in slashing incarceration rates in the state.  Instead of celebrating the drop as a sign that reform is succeeding, though, Hedman sees it as more evidence that the system remains highly dysfunctional....

By the time the pandemic began, efforts were well underway to move Washington away from incarceration as the primary response to crime.  The calls for changes following George Floyd’s 2020 murder by a Minneapolis police officer and a 2021 state Supreme Court decision invalidating laws against drug possession fueled that shift....

The number of adults Washington courts sentenced to prison and jail on felony charges has nearly halved in the past five years.  State Caseload Forecast Council records on felony sentences provide insight into how that reduction has played out.

The drop in sentences involving incarceration stems directly from a state Supreme Court ruling that Washington’s felony drug possession law was unconstitutional.  Legislation passed earlier this year recriminalized drug possession as misdemeanor rather than a felony, but it’s unclear whether local governments, including Seattle’s, will enforce the new law.  In 2022, about 800 people were sentenced for felony drug crimes — a 66% drop compared with the previous year, and an 86% drop compared with 2020....

Nearly 95% of these sentences were for dealing, compared with 2018, before the Supreme Court decision, when 84% were for non-dealing offenses.  Last year also saw a drop in jail and prison sentences for felony property, assault and sex crimes.  Experts attribute the overall decline in incarceration to the strains on the system since the pandemic.

During the pandemic, local jails and Department of Corrections-run prisons limited their populations by restricting who was taken into custody, said Russell Brown, executive director of the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys....

The average daily population of incarcerated people in Washington prisons was down 30% in 2022 compared with 2018, according to Department of Corrections data.  “So much of what you’ve seen has been a response to the system itself constricting and shutting down during this period of time,” said Hedman of the Washington Defender Association. “There are huge shortages of people wanting to be police officers, correctional officers, lawyers, whether it’s prosecutors or defense attorneys.”

The lingering effects of the pandemic will be evident across all criminal justice data for the next few years, said Lauren Peterson-Knoth, a senior researcher at the Washington Institute for Public Policy.  These constraints led prosecutors and courts to prioritize certain cases.  “The types of cases that were most likely to be processed were the crimes that were serious enough or repetitive enough that they finally had to put someone in custody,” said Brown of the prosecutor’s association.

In 2022, sentences for crimes that involved a deadly weapon, specifically firearms, increased the most in five years. This tracks with the reported increase in crimes involving firearms, said Brown, citing a King County report for 2022 showing reported shootings more than doubled compared with 2018.

July 5, 2023 at 06:20 AM | Permalink


Did the Washington Supreme Court say (1) that all simple possession statutes are unconstitutional, or (2) only that a person cannot be convicted of simple possession if his possession was unknowing and innocent (but that if it was knowing he could be convicted)? That's a big difference.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jul 5, 2023 6:12:40 PM

Here is an accounting of the ruling from the ACLU of Washington:

Q. What is the Blake decision?

On Feb. 25, 2021, the Washington Supreme Court issued a decision declaring the state’s main drug possession statute RCW 69.50.4013(1) unconstitutional and “void.” The ruling occurred in a case known as State v. Blake. In 2016, Shannon Blake was arrested in Spokane and convicted of simple drug possession. Blake argued that she did not know there was a baggie of methamphetamine in the jeans she had received from a friend.

Q. Why was the statute unconstitutional?

The court ruled that the statute violated the due process clause of the constitution. Without any mental state requirement, the law criminalized “unknowing” drug possession and people could be arrested and convicted even if they did not realize they had drugs in their possession. The majority concluded, “The legislature’s police power goes far, but not that far.”


Posted by: Doug B | Jul 5, 2023 8:45:01 PM

That sounds like something similar to overbreadth challenge in the 1st amendment context, that the statute sweeps too much innocent conduct along with the guilty, even if the vast majority of the conduct it covers in the 'real' world is, in fact, guilty.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Jul 6, 2023 11:35:58 AM

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