The Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys has found itself in an interesting pickle. For the past dozen years, it has successfully supported ever-longer prison sentences for felons. But now that it's backing slightly away from that position and asking that nonviolent drug offenders receive a mixture of prison time and treatment ["Change Your Meds," Phil Campbell, Jan 18], the association is discovering what liberals have known for years--politicians don't like to dedicate money to treatment.

The prosecutors' situation involves a bill that's mired in both state houses. The bill calls for lowering the prison sentences of nonviolent drug offenders, especially repeat offenders, and placing the money saved by unused prison beds into a special trust--a "lockbox." That trust money would be given to counties for the sole purpose of making drug-addiction treatments available to those same offenders.

"To me the bill's pretty simple," says Tom McBride, the organization's executive secretary. "We're trading time off prison sentences for treatment." McBride calls the bill's unique lockbox plan essential, because health-care providers don't trust the public sector. Without a guaranteed funding source, no treatment provider is going to invest new money in rehab programs for addicts, McBride says.

Nevertheless, some legislators are balking at the bill's lockbox plan. According to projections, reducing sentencing would save $17 million a year by 2007. That money could be put back into the state's general budget to fund a wide range of programs. "We usually try to avoid telling future legislators to spend this sum of money on certain programs," says state Senator Lisa Brown (D-Spokane). Brown herself insists that she's pro-treatment, but she doesn't think it's realistic to expect future legislators to leave the drug-treatment fund alone. As the chair of the senate Ways and Means Committee, Brown (and a handful of others) holds the key to the bill's uncertain fate.

The association plans to keep fighting for the bill, lockbox plan intact, but don't be mistaken: The prosecutors are not liberal converts. In fact, some groups are accusing the prosecutors of disingenuousness. Voter initiatives in states like California and Arizona have already produced sweeping drug-sentencing reforms, and some observers say Washington state's prosecutors are trying to slow down a similar movement here. "[They want] to control and thwart the building momentum for true drug reform in this state," says the ACLU's Jerry Sheehan.

McBride doesn't hide his organization's intent. Prosecutors would never be soft on crime, but they also recognize the pragmatic fact that some treatment programs have been shown to be effective. "We would leave the sentences the way they are--if the money were already there [for treatment]," he says. "But it's not."