IT LOOKS LIKE yet another bass-ackward year for the war on drugs. The Washington Department of Corrections, when asked by Governor Gary Locke to come up with its own budget cuts, recommended "saving" $4 million by drastically slashing its drug treatment program for inmates. The Seattle Police Department's undercover unit has been focusing its energies on arresting illiterate, $10 crackheads--while Seattle's city hall has declined to contribute more money to the treatment-oriented King County Drug Court. And, given President-elect George W. Bush's rhetoric, we're undoubtedly in for even harder federal drug-war laws.

Things, however, aren't necessarily what they seem. If some new developments at the local and state level are any indication, there actually may be a shift in thinking taking place about the drug war--among conservatives. The increasing financial problems associated with incarcerating minor drug offenders seem to have grown grave enough for tough-on-crime conservatives to start asking more skeptical questions. These are questions that liberals have been posing for years.

One person who's had a chance to see this new trend take shape is Ida Leggett, the director of the state's Sentencing Guidelines Commission. "[Attitudes] have been building from a high of 'Let's lock everybody up' in the mid-'80s to 'If you lock everybody up, somebody's gotta feed them,'" Leggett says.

What is Leggett referring to? For one, Leggett's own sentencing commission is conducting a year-long study of the financial impact of our overcrowded state prison system. When the commission formed its study late last year, it asked legislators what specific issues it should be studying. The top two issues that kept coming up were the viability of drug treatment programs and the wisdom of having tough sentencing laws for nonviolent drug offenders.

More significant than the study itself (for who really cares about what a study says?) is one of the study's biggest backers: Rep. Ida Ballasiotes (R-Mercer Island). Ballasiotes is a member of the commission and has been Washington's most well-known tough-on-crime politician for the past eight years.

Ballasiotes ran for office a few years after the murder of her daughter in Pioneer Square in 1989. Since she arrived in Olympia in 1992, she has either voted for or sponsored tough-on-crime legislation that has lengthened prison sentences for offenders of all kinds.

Ballasiotes' philosophy on criminal justice has always been based on rigid, conservative values: Spare no taxpayer dime in the fight for victims' rights and community safety. Now, however, it appears that money is finally becoming a factor. Our state prisons are clogged, meaning there's less room for our most violent offenders, and our state coffers are tight.

And now, it seems, Ballasiotes is willing to look into the possibility that the state reverse course a little. "We're going to have to require more treatment," she says. "But we have to look at our money right now. The budget's going to determine all that--that's the biggest thing."

Ballasiotes says she's willing to alleviate prison overcrowding by lowering the sentences for repeat, nonviolent drug offenders. Her only concern with this lighter approach is that it may dump the drug problem on the county jails. Most of the state's county jails are already overflowing, the state rep says.

It's not just Ballasiotes who may be changing tune. The sentencing commission has been getting input from a variety of organizations, says commission director Leggett. Whether from prosecutors or judges, defense attorneys or nonprofit agencies, the overwhelming sentiment has been toward more drug treatment and less jail time for nonviolent drug offenders.

The other sign of hope is more local. Three weeks ago, King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng launched his own investigation into the idea of putting more money into treatment and giving nonviolent drug offenders less prison time. Maleng is meeting with the courts, the King County Jail, the King County Sheriff, and the various public defender agencies.

Maleng's support on reviewing the local drug war is crucial. "Anything we do has a ripple effect on other agencies," says Dan Satterberg, Maleng's chief of staff. Last year, the prosecutor's office proved this assertion by clogging the courts with a record 4,000-plus criminal charges to individuals on primary drug felony offenses.

Satterberg was earnest in stressing how the county prosecutor's office has only just begun "looking into" the issue. He did say that Maleng was interested in trying something besides filing mass criminal charges.

"Over the last decade, law enforcement has been asked to do the whole thing," Satterberg says. "Treatment has not been funded to the extent necessary. We have learned through drug court that you can coerce treatment. [Through mandatory treatment], addicts begin to realize consequences and choices, and it becomes a real option for people."

When Maleng's office comes back with recommendations, the King County prosecutor may start lobbying Olympia as soon as possible--well before the state sentencing commission finishes its comprehensive report. "Anything we do has a ripple effect throughout the system," Satterberg says. "It may be that this issue can't wait until the next session. It may be something that doesn't need to wait a year."

phil@thestranger.com

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