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Drug users will get a pass on minor charges in Snohomish County

(File, Associated Press)

Drug users in Snohomish County are going to get a pass if they’re busted with less than 2 grams of any drug.

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Snohomish County Prosecutor Mark Roe says there aren’t enough prosecutors to take on those cases. He says they are time-consuming and expensive and do little to stop drug use.

“In 2017 our felony division, with no additional personnel, filed 700 more cases into Superior Court than in 2016. That resulted in caseloads far beyond what our trial deputies can handle effectively. Additionally, when we file more cases our county public defenders, because of the reasonable caseload standards adopted by the Supreme Court, get more attorneys. We do not. We just get further and further behind,” a statement from the prosecutor’s office reads.

Instead, Snohomish County prosecutors will focus on burglaries, assaults, DUIs, as well as property crimes that drug users commit.

The move comes just days after the King County prosecutor announced he was tossing 1,500 misdemeanor cases because of a shortage of prosecutors.

Snohomish County Chief Criminal Deputy Prosecutor Craig Matheson told KIRO Radio’s Dori Monson the only way someone will be prosecuted for possession of a small amount of drugs is if it is attached to another crime of higher importance, such as burglary.

Is this a form of legalization in Snohomish County?

Dori asked if this is a form of heroin legalization.

“No, I wouldn’t put it like that,” Matheson said. “We just do not have the resources to adequately process simple possessions and adequately prosecute crimes where there are identifiable victims [of more serious crime].”

Matheson says Snohomish County officials will monitor crime in the area. If there is a clear spike in criminal activity affiliated to addiction after the policy change, they will re-evaluate the situation.

Listen to the entire conversation here.

Full statement from the Snohomish County Prosecutor’s Office

In 2017 our felony division, with no additional personnel, filed 700 more cases into Superior Court than in 2016. That resulted in caseloads far beyond what our trial deputies can handle effectively. Additionally, when we file more cases our county public defenders, because of the reasonable caseload standards adopted by the Supreme Court, get more attorneys. We do not. We just get further and further behind.

In many counties across the state, if not most, drug possession cases involving a small amount, even though a felony by law, are commonly handled as misdemeanors. Small fines were imposed that were often not paid, and probation is ordered that is often not complied with. Courts are still understandably reluctant to incarcerate addicts for possessing small amounts of drugs, and even if imposed, jail doesn’t seem to address an addiction problem. Recidivism is near 100%. Addicts will seemingly address their addiction when they decide to, not when we try to force them to. Our office also utilized this “Expedited Misdemeanor” process for many years on these cases, but with negligible effect. Even our “successes” were usually failures, as re-offense was more the rule than the exception.

In short, a prosecutorial response to minor possession cases has apparently done little if anything to curb drug use. What we have been doing on these cases hasn’t been working. What it was doing however, was preventing our deputies from being able to concentrate more fully on Burglaries, Robberies, DUIs, assaults, and the myriad property crimes drug users commit, because we were too busy dutifully charging them, essentially for being addicts in the first place. I have decided to temporarily try letting social service and public health industries try to tackle this social and health problem, and on cases below 2 grams, getting out of their way. I am also hopeful that Sheriff Trenary’s proposed pilot project diversion center has positive results for these people; but what we have done hasn’t.

If other crime actually gets worse, which I highly doubt it will, we will try something else or otherwise reconsider. We historically modify our standards often to reflect our priorities and resources. Under 2 grams of drugs has typically been a low priority criminal case, and at this point is beyond those resources. I learned today that King County is taking similar action on 1500 misdemeanor cases, for essentially the same reason we are taking this step.

Criminal Justice currently consumes over 70% of county general fund resources, and we are constantly reminded of that. It has been made very clear, through this year’s budget process that failed to utilize a property tax increase already approved by voters, that more resources for our office were not going to be forthcoming. It is my job to utilize the resources granted as effectively and efficiently as possible, and live within my means. This charging adjustment is part of that. Something had to give. As we told law enforcement, we will always consider making exceptions if a particular case, in our opinion, does merit the expenditure of resources. This change does not apply to drug dealers or traffickers where we have sufficient evidence to charge those higher crimes. In fact, this step will likely allow us to be even more aggressive on those cases.

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