Pubdate: Wed, 28 Feb 2001
Source: Olympian, The (WA)
Copyright: 2001 The Olympian
Address: 111 Bethel Street North East, Olympia, WA 98506
Fax: (360) 357-0202


The choice is simple. Society can continue to spend millions of
dollars to build more state prisons and larger county jails to
incarcerate more drug felons, or taxpayers can invest their dollars in
prevention and treatment programs in hopes of saving lives and future
jail costs.

Incarceration hasn't worked. We've filled jails and prisons with a
never-ending stream of drug offenders.

It's time for a new strategy.

King County Bar Association President Fred Nolan admitted the failure
of the current system when speaking in support of criminal justice
reforms. "What we've been doing has not worked," Nolan said. "In terms
of cutting down on the use of drugs, it's proven to be a failed strategy."

Nolan has a surprising ally -- King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng, a
man known for his no nonsense approach to criminal activity.

"It is time to move our drug policy in a new direction ... to renew a
commitment to treatment," Maleng told a recent meeting of the Senate
Judiciary Committee.

We see the situation playing out right before our eyes.

At the same time Maleng was testifying in support of more treatment
options, attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union were writing
a letter to Thurston County Undersheriff Neil McClanahan. The letter
was blunt: Unless Thurston County eases crowding in the county jail,
the ACLU will sue.

"It's basically a shape-up-or-get-sued letter," admits ACLU spokesman
Doug Honig.

It's a suit the county won't win. When the court fight is over, judges
will dictate jail operation issues instead of locally elected
officials who know and work in this community.

The county also should pay attention to another faction. County
correction officers believe their lives are endangered because of the
overflow of inmates. Legal action is possible on that front as well.

Undersheriff McClanahan says, "Between 80 and 85 percent of the people
in that jail are there because of (methamphetamine) and other drugs.
It may be an assault related to drugs or a burglary charge related to
drugs, or a theft charge because of drugs, but I'd say drugs are
responsible for 80 to 85 percent of those people sitting in jail."

It's clear that the state's Omnibus Drug Act of 1989 hasn't worked. In
that overhaul of state drug laws, the minimum punishment for dealing
drugs increased from 13 months to 21 months. Sentences for heroin and
cocaine offenses doubled and a person with four convictions for
dealing drugs automatically serves 10 years, up from three years.

Yet King County last year filed a record number of felony drug charges
- -- 4,258 cases.

Various legislative proposals are moving through the Capitol Campus.
Maleng supports a bill to lower the sentencing range for nonviolent
drug offenders, cutting the length of stay behind bars, then shifting
the state dollars from prison beds to treatment.

There are conflicting ideas on the amount of money that should be
spent on treatment and how far sentences should be cut.

But we are pleased, at long last, to see criminal justice leaders and
legislators acknowledging that harsher penalties haven't curbed drug

It's time to invest in prevention and treatment. 
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