Proposed Bill Would Reduce Penalties for Drug Crimes
By Felix Chrome
In a move to lessen the penalties for drug possession, House Rep. Sherry Appleton has filled a new bill in the Washington Legislature that would reduce most drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor. Rep. Appleton, from Port Orchard, filed the bill ahead of the Legislature’s 2015 session, which started Jan. 12 and runs through March.
Under current law, possession of a controlled substance, which includes all illegal drugs, regulated pharmaceuticals, and 40 grams or more of marijuana, is a Class C felony. This type of felony carries a penalty of up to five years in prison.
Appleton’s proposal, House Bill 1024, would reclassify the possession of controlled substances to a misdemeanor, reducing the penalty to a fine or no more than 90 days in jail. However is would not cover “possession with intent to manufacture or distribute,” so larger amounts would remain a felony. The threshold for what is beyond personal use varies depending on the drug and how it is classified.
Six other Democratic representatives co-sponsored Appleton’s bill, including Rep. Chris Reykdal of the 22nd district, which includes Olympia, Tumwater, and Lacey.
The bill would lessen strain on the Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC), which is preparing for a potential 15 percent budget cut this coming year. In a letter to the Legislature, DOC Secretary Bernard Warner stated that even at current funding levels, “the impact of budget cuts due to the economic downturn have been challenging to our staff and the agency.”
According to the budget proposal submitted by the Washington DOC, prisons were already operating at more than 100 percent capacity in 2014, and with continuations of current policies, overcrowding is expected to get worse.
In contingency plans for further cuts, the DOC said they would have to reduce the number of inmates by 4,700. Reducing sentencing for drug possession could help achieve this by saving the DOC an estimated $1,974,000 in the next fiscal year, according to documents the DOC submitted to the Washington Office of Financial Management.
Appleton and four co-sponsors filed a nearly identical bill (House Bill 2116) in the 2014 legislative session. This bill was sent to the House Public Safety Committee and had a public hearing, but was never brought to the house floor for a vote.
According to the fiscal note attached to HB 2116, if passed, about 9,000 cases per year would be charged as misdemeanors instead of felonies. The same note estimates that 48 jail beds and 360 prison beds could be cut.
The proposed Washington bill follows a California measure, passed by voters in November, that defelonized all drug possession for personal use. As the first state to do this, California demonstrated a dramatic reversal in drug war policies, largely because they faced ongoing problems of prison overcrowding and budgetary shortfalls.
The House Public Safety Committee scheduled the bill for a public hearing on Jan. 16 at 10 a.m. Anyone who wants to share their opinion about the bill is welcome to speak at this hearing.