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No more free pass for low-level drug offenders in Snohomish County

Snohomish County Campus (Snohomish County via Flickr)

It’s been nearly two years since the former Snohomish County prosecutor announced a policy of not prosecuting people busted with two grams or less of any drug.

Current Snohomish County Prosecutor Adam Cornell has been trying to reverse the policy since he took office in January and this week got his wish when the county council added money to the budget for the extra staff he needs to reverse the policy and handle those cases.

“What it means specifically to my efforts to reverse the two grams threshold that has been the subject of much discussion over these past few months, is that come January 1 – or sometime soon thereafter – I’m going to be able to go back to enforcing the law in a responsible and compassionate way,” Cornell said.

While this is not a total about face to start locking everyone up again, Cornell says it is about adding some accountability to the mix.

“I have created a specialized unit in our office called the Prosecution Crossroads Unit and it contains all of our alternative justice programs,” Cornell explained. “It’s called the Prosecution Crossroads Unit for a reason. Somebody who is suffering from a mental health issue or substance use disorder, they’re at a crossroads in their life. When they have committed a crime and they’re engaged with the criminal justice system, they can choose one path or the other, and they’re at a crossroads and we want to offer them that choice – to get better.”

In January, the new deputy prosecutor and support staff that the council just provided the funding for in its approved budget will lead the effort.

“The prosecutor will be chiefly responsible for helping to screen people for eligibility and help look at folks right when they come in and are booked in the jail,” Cornell said. “If they are booked, and looking at what is right for this person…what can we as a prosecutor’s office offer this person. Every defendant who comes into the system is different so we need to take a tailored and a measured approach to this.”

When County Executive Dave Somers released his initial budget proposal in September, it did not include the more than $400,000 dollars Cornell needed to reverse the policy. Instead, Somers wanted a comprehensive justice system study to determine the best programs to invest in. Cornell understood, but felt a sense of urgency to reverse the policy. He went to the council to make his case and gained enough support to get it done, including from council chair Terry Ryan.

“What I liked about it is primarily the accountability. People have to be held accountable. I mean I see what’s going on down in Seattle now and I just wonder where that accountability is. We want to make sure, in Snohomish County, everyone is accountable,” Ryan said, adding he felt the change would make the county’s streets and residents safer.

For District 5 council member Sam Low, it’s about providing balance and accountability.

“I’ve heard from a lot of residents in District 5 who are concerned and there’s some passionate people across the board,” Low explained. “There are some who want to throw every single person in jail and throw away the key. I’ve got others on the other side who never want to see another person go to jail. So trying to find that balance with my constituents, and this has the balance.”

That balance comes from the choice these offenders will get to make, according to Ryan.

“(They) can either take the help that we’re offering or go to the criminal justice system,” Ryan said. “That’s a lot of incentive for somebody to say, ‘You know what, I’m tired of this life and I want a better life.'”

Cornell also believes the change will improve public safety.

“It is not going to happen overnight, I mean this is going to take some time,” Cornell cautioned.

“But, I know for certain that continuing on the current path is not going to make our community safer and more livable – I know that for certain, doing nothing was not an option,” Cornell added.

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