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Legislature looks at softening illegal drug punishments

Some criminal justice advocates say it's time to change simple possession of drugs to a misdemeanor from a felony. (AP Photo/File)

Marijuana possession is now legal in Washington and many criminal justice advocates say it’s time to continue the trend.

A Washington state House committee is considering changing simple possession of other drugs from a felony to a misdemeanor.

Seattle defense attorney Douglas Hiatt testified before the committee considering whether defelonizing possession is the way to go.

“Our drug policies in this country are a complete and total failure. They are ruining lives every day and every minute.”

Juli Cummings’ boyfriend was sent away for 71 years for possession. She spoke to the committee Tuesday, as well.

“I don’t think the members of this body really, truly understand what it’s like to have a loved one in prison,” said Cummings. “I don’t know if you’ve ever gone through the gates and visited someone, supported them, putting everything in your life on hold to set them free when everyone said it was impossible.”

Democrat Sherry Appleton is sponsoring the legislation. She said branding people as felons for simple drug possession can be a life sentence for many.

“When they come out of prison, they have to say they were convicted of a crime. They have to do all of those things and most likely will not be hired for a job; not be able to rent an apartment, not be able to get a mortgage, not be able to go to college for simple possession,” said Appleton.

Hiatt said he sees that impact every day, especially for kids convicted of possession.

“I have written thousands of letters for kids who have felony convictions where their lives are ruined,” Hiatt said. “They can’t get into college, they can’t get financial aid. When you get a felony and get out of prison, I’ve got guys in my office all the time (who say), ‘I’ve been out of prison three years, and I still can’t get a job.'”

The bill would make simple possession a misdemeanor, punishable with 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine. Currently, the punishment is up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

Appleton said this change won’t affect the laws for drug dealers, traffickers, or manufacturers.

“We are not excusing that behavior,” Appleton said. “What we’re doing is saying we’re not going to ruin your life, for the rest of your life with a felony.”

And Hiatt believes criminal justice dollars can be better spent.

“It doesn’t increase public safety an iota, not one bit. If you thought that putting people in jail for drug problems works, please take a look at our prison population. Please take a look at the $60 to $70 to $120 billion a year that we’re wasting. Please start listening to people in the trenches,” he said.

There was no testimony against the proposed change at Tuesday’s hearing, although the Association of Washington Cities did raise concerns that this change would shift the burden of dealing with drug offenses on them and they don’t have the money to handle it.

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