Round two in Snohomish prosecutor’s fight to reverse lax drug law

Round two in Snohomish prosecutor’s fight to reverse lax drug law
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Snohomish County Prosecutor Adam Cornell. (Hanna Scott, KIRO Radio)

He lost round one in his fight to reverse a policy of not busting low level drug offenders. On Thursday, the Snohomish County prosecutor took the fight to the county council for round two.

Snohomish County prosecutor wants to abolish 2-gram drug policy

“The word on the street is that if you have less than two grams of a controlled substance then you’re not going to get prosecuted – ‘you’re not going to be able to do anything to me because I’m only holding a gram and a half,'” Snohomish Prosecutor Adam Cornell said earlier in 2019. Now, he’s announcing an effort to reverse the policy of not prosecuting offenders caught with two grams or less of any drug.

The policy was put in place more than a year earlier in 2018 by Cornell’s predecessor, Mark Roe, who said at the time he didn’t have enough prosecutors for the time consuming and expensive cases that did little to stop drug use.

When Cornell took office this January, he heard from law enforcement officers encountering more and more criminals intentionally carrying under two grams knowing they could get away it and that didn’t sit well with him so he started pushing to reverse the policy.

To do that he needed $365,000 for more prosecutors and legal assistants. So, he lobbied County Executive Dave Sommers and the County Council to include that money in the budget and took to the airwaves to urge supportive residents to do the same.

But the money was not in the county executive’s budget proposal last month. Instead Sommers included funding for a comprehensive study to develop a system-wide public safety reform plan before making any big changes.

Cornell gets why, but feels a sense of urgency to reverse the policy to protect both the community and the offender.

So, he cut his budget ask in half to just $171,000, and took his pitch to the county council, which has the final say on what makes it into the budget.

“My vision is that we have a safer more livable community for everybody in Snohomish County. We start by not turning our backs on people but engaging people in a way that is compassionate and thoughtful, but provides some measure of accountability,” Cornell explained as he made the case for his Innovative Justice Reform Initiative to councilmembers.

“So that we can say to the community, you’re not just going to get a pass and be out there … we actually care about you,” he added, stressing the policy change would not be focused on prosecuting low level drug crimes. “The presumption should be on diversion and treatment and that includes this general idea of harm reduction.”

But, Cornell said that is not going to work for every single person, like prolific offenders who could lose the treatment option if they are simply repeating the same behavior.

For those offenders, Cornell said he needs discretion to send them to jail. He also wants discretion on alternatives to jail.

“Maybe [someone] is more drug court eligible, or may somebody’s more mental health court eligible, may somebody should have pre-arrest diversion,” Cornell said, suggesting the county could also look into using a LEAD – Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion – program like Seattle and King County.

“Not everybody who is struggling with substance use disorder is the same and we have to be able to take a measured and tailored approach to that, but the overarching principle should be compassion and rehabilitation,” Cornell continued.

“That’s what I think everybody wants. Nobody is looking at lock them up and throw away the key. Nobody. We’re looking to try to find a sensible, compassionate solution that provides some level of accountability,” Cornell added.

Some councilmembers had concerns about putting more people into jail, and the costs associated with that both on the jail and prosecution side.

But others read emails from constituents pleading for action to deal with these type of drug offenders who are often breaking into homes, cars or otherwise stealing to fuel their drug habits.

Councilmemember Nate Nehring pointed to the success and public support they have in Marysville using embedded social worker teams, that also make arrests to ensure there us an accountability side.

What Nehring did not want was Snohomish County ending up like Seattle.

“Spending so much money on additional program ideas for homelessness and the opioid epidemic and it doesn’t make a dent. It’s a disaster,” Nehring said, describing Seattle’s response to the opioid and homeless crisis.

“I think we have to be different in Snohomish County, to making sure that we have diversion opportunities available – but I don’t think it works unless we have that accountability component too,” Nehring said at the council meeting.

Cornell reiterated this his vision absolutely came with the ability to put people behind bars if need be.

“But we know that by people engaging treatment we’re going to have a safer community because they’re not going to becoming back because we’ll be addressing the root cause of the crime, and that’s going to make everybody safer,” Cornell explained.

Some on the council grilled Cornell for specifics, hard numbers for expected prosecutions, costs, and more.

Cornell stressed this would be a first of its kind approach for Snohomish County, so any numbers he had from before the current policy would likely be irrelevant.

Bottom line, he’s asking for a leap of faith.

“I can’t promise you that every single person is going to be able to avail themselves of this option,” Cornell said. “But what I can tell you is that by being able to reverse this policy, people on the street aren’t going to be able to deliberately hold less than two grams and think they can get away with it.”

After a more than two hour pitch, at least two of the five councilmembers had shown solid support, and there was strong interest from two others who expressed concern over the cost needed for the additional staff.

Cornell told them he understood, and no matter which way things go, he would hold nothing against the council or county executive with the knowledge he did all he could.

In an interview after the meeting, Cornell said he felt good about the chances of getting the needed funding to reverse that two-gram policy in Snohomish County.

“I am more optimistic now than I was before I made my presentation to the council, and I was pleased with the depth of their questioning, and frankly, at least what appeared to be some tacit support of some members of the council,” Cornell said.

Cornell points out even King County’s LEAD program manager Lisa Daugaard, who is adamantly against locking most people up, supports his plan to reverse the policy.

Daugaard says there is a reason for that.

“LEAD recognizes that rarely is jail booking and prosecution going to improve matters for people struggling with substance use disorder or caught up in the drug economy to meet subsistence needs. At the same time, the rule of thumb in LEAD is ‘do whatever is within your scope of authority that is actually most likely to result in behavior change,'” Daugaard said in an email.

“So, in those comparatively few instances where it appears to officers and prosecutors that jail and prosecution are the best choice they have, even weighing the likely negative impact on the individual’s own life prospects, that option is always on the table. It just is rarely believed to be the best option, because they have other choices and tools as well,” Daugaard added.

A final decision on whether Cornell gets the funding he’s requested will be worked out in the weeks ahead in the county budget process.

Round two in Snohomish prosecutor’s fight to reverse lax drug law

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