Re-thinking harsh, distorted drug laws
It's time for judges and lawyers to say publicly what many have said privately for years --- the state's drug laws are out of whack and must be changed.
Fred Noland, president of the King County Bar Association, has invited leaders of the legal community to join a task force on drug laws. King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng should be at the table.
Washington's drug sentencing laws have been demogogued to the point of injustice. An addict who supports his habit by pointing willing buyers to dealers on the street faces a minimum of 21 months in prison. That's the same sentence faced for a first-degree arson or vehicular homicide. It's a harsher sentence than given to someone guilty of a drive-by shooting or sexually molesting a 12-year-old. If the same addict supported his habit by breaking into your home and stealing jewelry, he'd get three months in jail.
Worse, political lemmings in Olympia have been led to believe threat of prison will somehow overcome the effects of addiction. That line of thinking has resulted in distortions in state sentencing laws. A person with a prior felony conviction for a non-violent drug crime gets a longer prison term than persons with prior convictions for many property crimes, and even assaults.
For instance, a second conviction for cocaine delivery will send the addict to prison for a minimum of 36 months. You can beat up and rob a little old lady and get less time than that. The second conviction for second-degree assault--breaking someone's nose, for example --- has a sentence range of only 12 to 14 months.
No wonder the state's prison population is growing. Between 1989 and 1999, prison admissions increased 93 percent. That compares to a 22 percent increase in the total state population. Sending non-violent drug offenders to prison instead of jail or treatment is a big factor in this staggering increase. Now, drug crime offenders make up the largest single category of the prison population, 21.5 percent.
Noland thinks the highly touted national war on drugs is a lost cause. He's right. He's called for lawyers, judges and treatment professionals to come up with new, fairer and more effective strategies. Some of the more liberal King County judges already have signed on. What's needed is the participation of moderates and conservatives from the bench, bar, and especially, law enforcement. Involvement by someone of Maleng's stature and reputation would bring greater credibility to this important effort.
Police chiefs and prosecutors across the state should welcome this nascent effort. It's time for reasonable people to take back the drug laws.
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