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Gov. Inslee commutes over a dozen drug sentences after state court decision

Gov. Jay Inslee. (Governor Inslee's office)

In February, the Washington State Supreme Court shocked the state with an unexpected decision that essentially invalidated the state’s drug possession law.

Lawmakers scramble to close drug possession loophole created by court ruling

Prosecutors, judges, legalization advocates, and others had no idea it was coming. It has had prosecutors across the state scrambling to vacate now invalid sentences for simple drug possession, but Governor Inslee is also doing his part on the clemency side of things.

On Tuesday, Inslee signed commutations for 13 people serving sentences for simple drug possession, allowing them to walk out of prison. He was expecting to sign at least two more before the end of the day, and said more are likely to follow.

While prosecutors and the courts have worked to vacate the convictions of individuals convicted and sentenced under this now-invalidated drug possession statute, the governor has opted to use his clemency authority to get those incarcerated due to the now-invalid statute out of prison sooner.

Last week, Inslee offered unconditional commutations to individuals remaining in Department of Corrections custody solely on simple drug possession convictions.

In its surprising decision, the state’s high court said the law was unconstitutional because it did not require prosecutors to prove a suspect knowingly or intentionally possessed contraband.

State lawmakers have been working hard to come up with a fix, with moderate Democrats and Republicans largely supporting proposals that would add the word “knowingly” to the now-invalid law, solving the court’s issue.

But many Democrats already favor a decriminalization path rather than keeping a law on the books from a tough-on-crime era that disproportionately impacted people of color.

WA Rep explains deeper goal behind bill to decriminalize drugs

It’s unclear whether lawmakers will have sufficient time to get a fix done before the session ends in just under two weeks.

“We need to make sure that we’re taking a look at treatment options, at the way equity and racial justice plays into this policy,” said Democratic Senator Manka Dhingra during a Tuesday press briefing.

But, with the session winding to a close, there’s something else to consider.

“Where we can get 25 votes in the Senate to send it to the House,” said Dhingra, who has a bill proposed that focuses on treatment and creates very limited criminal consequences, largely for youth caught with personal amounts of drugs.

In a weekend committee hearing, several other proposals were added, competing with Dhringa’s bill that largely focus on a tougher fix.

At this point, it is not a done deal with the session wrapping up on April 25.

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