City and County Prosecutors Clash over Drug Prosecutions
Seattle City Attorney Tom Carr is taking a different approach to closing the half-million-dollar funding gap at his office than his counterparts at King County. While King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg is diverting about 2,300 low-level drug cases away from prosecution and jail to help shave roughly $4 million from his budget, Carr is digging in his heels at city council meetings and defending an enforcement-heavy approach to low-level drug-possession charges.
At a meeting of the city council's Public Safety Committee in October, Carr insisted that his office couldn't stop pursuing low-level drug-paraphernalia cases. Instead, to the chagrin of committee chair Tim Burgess, Carr suggested that his office might save money by cutting about $300,000 for high-priority programs, including funding for prosecuting domestic-violence cases.
"I told him that it was not acceptable," Burgess says. Although Carr came back to the council with a balanced budget, he has shown no signs that he'll consider changing how his office handles low-level drug cases.
If anything, Carr has only become more vocal about his position. In a testy letter to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Carr chastised the P-I's editorial board for suggesting that city leaders should consider "shift[ing resources] from the prosecution of low-level drug crimes into recovery programs" to handle the city's free-falling budget. That strategy, popular among Seattle progressives and several local lawmakers, saves money and has been shown to be more effective than incarceration.
In his letter, Carr shot back, "Decriminalization is the functional equivalent of giving up. We have proven answers to the drug problem."
Reached by phone the week after the P-I published his letter, Carr noted his support for the city's community court, which links low-level offenders with social services and community-service programs instead of jail. "I would rather have someone get treatment for addiction rather than put him in jail," Carr said.
But the city attorney's lip service to treatment stands at odds with his years of staunch support for existing drug laws, which are expensive to enforce and have little impact on drug abuse or crime rates.
Satterberg, in contrast, has proposed sending thousands of drug-possession cases from King County Superior Court to the lower county district court, where, he says, most defendants "will not get jail." Because those defendants would no longer be eligible for drug court, a division of King County Superior Court, Satterberg's approach is actually more lax than the one advocated by the P-I's editorial board.
"There are a lot of people in the system who are not otherwise criminally oriented but for their addiction to drugs," Satterberg says. Under his plan, those caught with less than three grams of heroin, cocaine, or methamphetamine "will not get a felony criminal history and not get sent to prison, no matter what their prior record was, with very limited exceptions," he says.
Seattle has repeatedly rejected outdated drug-war rhetoric. In 2003, voters approved an initiative that made marijuana possession the city's lowest law-enforcement priority (Carr spoke out against it, and—full disclosure—I ran the campaign to support it). Over the past few years, the city and county councils have both funded innovative programs that replace arrest with social services, such as CURB (formerly Clean Dreams), which sends counselors to help drug users and sellers get off the streets.
So why is a Seattle elected official like Carr the leading voice in Seattle against drug reform?
"I have met a lot of people who have ruined their lives with drugs," Carr says. "Some people are deterred from using drugs because of the fact that it is illegal."
But Council Member Nick Licata thinks Carr's resistance to reforming drug enforcement is moral, not practical. "[To Carr], it's like, if you break the law, you have got to go to jail." Indeed, at October's contentious public-safety hearing, Carr told council members, "[If] someone commits a crime, we have to prosecute them."
Although Carr's proposed cuts leave drug enforcement unchanged, the council is preparing to rethink the city attorney's drug-enforcement budget for him anyway.
This month, the council will begin "an evaluation of both our policing and our prosecution strategies as they relate to low-level drug offenses," says Burgess. He says the council is trying to determine if, by relaxing drug enforcement, the city might entirely avoid building a new city jail.