Meth, heroin and cocaine suspects will face prosecution in 2020
SNOHOMISH COUNTY — Two grams of meth, heroin or cocaine will lead to more than a night in jail, as soon as the 2-gram rule is lifted, in early 2020.
Since February of 2018, the “2-gram rule” has given a pass to suspects caught with two grams or less of meth, heroin and cocaine. The rule came before current Prosecutor, Adam Cornell. His predecessor, Mark Roe, created the rule as a way to focus resources on violent crime.
Since the rule went into place, simple possession of these illicit drugs has only resulted in a night in jail. In at least one jurisdiction, suspects were not even booked. With approval of funding at the county level, Cornell said, he is ready to lift the 2-gram rule and resume prosecution, for simple possession.
“We will go back to prosecuting those cases but doing it in a thoughtful, compassionate way,” Cornell said. “We’re still working on nailing down the eligibility criteria.”
Alternative sentencing programs already in process at the county already have eligibility criteria. He said the option for alternative sentencing gives 2-gram suspects a chance to wipe the slate clean, if they complete their court-ordered program, and avoid the collateral damage that comes from a criminal conviction. Prior criminal history can be an eligibility factor for both housing and jobs.
The compassionate way to prosecute is already set up. The county has alternative sentencing set up in the form of specialized courts that deal with mental health and drug abuse, a therapeutic alternative to prosecution (TAP program, and a Diversion Center. The new county funding will staff Cornell’s department, getting it ready to assess 2-gram violators and match them with the type of sentencing that may help.
The rule itself was not intended to blow off crime. Cornell agreed with its intent: It was set in motion to focus resources in the prosecutor’s office on violent crimes. The county is already set up to offer alternative sentencing in the form of a TAP program, mental health and drug courts, Felony Diversion and pre-charging diversion. Once eligibility is determined and pre-charging diversion occurs, the anticipation is 70 to 80 cases in 2020, Cornell’s statement said, even though approximately 150 to 160 were likely in possession of two grams or less in 2019. The lesser impact is due to eligibility requirements and the net that comes from pre-charging diversion, his report to the council said.
Somers’ office said they had no reason to contradict Cornell’s predictions on additional simple possession cases, once the rule lifted. But his office is still concerned about cost.
With Cornell predicting “75 to 80 suspects will be prosecuted, that will be a significant increase in work for public defenders, the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, the jail, law enforcement, the courts,”said Kent Patton, communications director for Executive Somers.
But the prosecutor’s office says funding is already dedicated to the problem of simple possession suspects.
Shelly Yale, supervisor for Cornell’s Prosecution Crossroads Unit, wrote in the report to the council that the “2-gram or less folks” are already caught up in the criminal justice system and resources are already directed at them, due to misdemeanor level lawbreaking. Misdemeanor crimes such as theft can impact quality of life for residents, she said. The alternative sentencing options provide the guidance of an advocate to help navigate services, combined with the “external motivation of a pending criminal charge,” she said.
Reasons vary on why people do not seek help without that push and pull. But that lawbreaking is an opportune moment to push people toward positive change. She says the result is preventative.
“For many, it is just a matter of time before they commit a more serious crime that will be charged,” Yale said.
Sometime in early to mid January, Cornell will make a formal announcement to local law enforcement, prior to the official lift in the 2-gram rule.
Cornell’s fact-sheet for the county council anticipates about half of those offered alternative sentencing will “accept the invitation.” He has said in the past that these programs are hard work: sobriety and mental health programs require a commitment. He announced prior to the council’s consideration of the 2020 budget that he would keep the 2-gram rule in place until staff-funding for his office was secured, to make room for alternative sentencing.
Somers did not include funding for Cornell’s request in his budget proposal, but the county council did. Instead, he proposed a study that would test the impacts of a staffing increase in the prosecutor’s office, prior to implementing it. Results of the study will not be ready until after its parameters are set in 2020, Patton said.
“Executive Somers supports the Prosecutor changing the policy, but if more staff are provided it should be done with a view to impacts across the criminal justice system,” he said.
Cornell said some people will still “end up being prosecuted in a traditional way” in possession cases. Some due to being ineligible. Eligibility criteria may end up excluding suspects with a history of violent offenses, but the specifics to eligibility for alternative sentencing is “to be determined,” he said.
One of the alternative sentencing programs is TAP: more than half of those who completed the TAP program were convicted for possession of methamphetamine. “One year after completing TAP, 92.6 percent of the participants remained crime-free,” Cornell’s fact sheet says.
The anticipated cost for the funding request, by Cornell, was $302,000 to $429,000. The specific amount approved was unavailable by press time for the Tribune.
Prior to passage of the budget, Somers predicted increased court cost that were not yet determined in the plan. The county was already spending 75 percent of Somers’ proposed budget on law and justice agencies, and Somers said staff-funding prior to the lift of the 2-gram rule would further burden criminal prosecutors.
Somers’ intent was to measure that impact first through a study submitted to the council with his pre-Thanksgiving budget proposal. The study was funded in the recently-approved 2020 budget, and its parameters won’t be set until that year begins, said Patton.
The council opted to edit that part of Somers’ budget.
The rule-lift means in 2020, at a time that is to-be-announced, suspects will be booked and referred to the prosecutor’s office. Cornell said an official announcement on the end of the 2-gram rule comes out in January.
Patton said once the rule if officially lifted, “it will be up to the Sheriff and other local law enforcement leaders to determine who will help enforce the policy.”
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