IF THE STRUGGLE for a saner drug policy needs a poster child, Chris Hurst seems tailor-made for the role. Hurst knows the fruitless, destructive collective mania that Richard Nixon dubbed "the War on Drugs" from the ground up. He's a former King County narcotics detective and currently a detective on the Black Diamond police force, and so spends a lot of time apprehending people who use drugs, sell drugs, and steal and rob to buy drugs. "I've put bad guys in prison for 19 years," he says. "No one in the world is going to call me soft on crime. I've worked at this so long, I've put the same people in prison three times."
And that's how Hurst came to realize he was helping throw money and lives away: "We're going broke, and we're not dealing with the real problems. It costs a fortune to house someone in prison, and we're increasing our prison population at an exponential rate. There's got to be better way."
Such notions are hardly novel—pointy-headed liberals and raging libertarians have been voicing them for decades. As Hurst's boss, Black Diamond Police Cmdr. Glenn Dickson, says, "If it were someone else saying those things, maybe it wouldn't carry so much weight. But he speaks with such a depth of experience you have to listen. He's an awesome, awesome cop."
As of two weeks ago, Hurst is also a state legislator, with a shot at putting his ideas into action. As a liberal Democrat running against a well-liked incumbent in a conservative exurban rural district, Hurst ran on a platform of getting smart, rather than just "tough," on crime, and expanding drug treatment and other alternatives to prison. His opponent tried to avoid the subject; as Hurst says, "It's very difficult to criticize a police officer on any law and justice issue."
Hurst won narrowly, and arrived in Olympia at an opportune moment. After nearly two decades of determinate sentencing/mandatory minimum/three strikes/lock 'em up/drug war fervor, a new sort of alarm is being raised, in Olympia as elsewhere: sheer fiscal terror (and, for those who bother to think about it, moral outrage) at what locking 'em up is bringing us to. Nearly 2 million Americans are behind bars—far and away the largest number and the highest percentage among industrial nations. Washington's state prison population (more than 14,000, including nearly 3,000 drug offenders) is expected to grow by about 500 per year until 2005 and hit 20,702 by 2013. And officials are considering renting cells from other states.
These figures don't include about 10,000 prisoners awaiting trial or serving sentences of less than a year, including most of those convicted of drug possession; they're consigned to county jails, whose total population grew by a whopping 16 percent from 1996 to '97, the last reported years. "The reality is that counties spend 70 percent or more of their budgets on law enforcement," says Ken Stark, director of the state's Alcohol and Substance Abuse Division. "Most property crimes are done to get drugs. At least 70 percent of our inmates had drug or alcohol problems. To the extent you can get them to stop using drugs and alcohol, they stop committing crimes."
Since 1994, the King County courts have pioneered a much-praised way of doing just that. Defendants charged with drug possession are offered an alternative to the trial-and-jail-or-prison route. They may waive their defense and all future appeals, and undergo a rigorous yearlong regimen of drug treatment, testing, counseling, and such self-betterment as the court may direct in its regular reviews. If they flunk or quit, they get the full sentence. If they "graduate," as it's called, they get a big courtroom party with a cake and no record of the crime.
Spend an hour in drug court and you'll see the full parade of human misery, hope, and frailty pass before the bench. Judge Nicole McInnes plays by turns the coach, drill sergeant, and wise auntie as she orders a ragged, rattled codger to show up on time!, hears a woman vehemently contest her "bad UAs" (urinalysis readings) and sends her downstairs for a new test, advises a serious young fellow whose counselor doesn't respect his religion, and unsuccessfully urges a sad, streetworn older woman to try drug court instead of shuffling off to jail. You get the feeling a lot of people have waited a long time for a little authority and guidance.
FIVE YEARS AGO, drug court was a suspect, vanguard idea. Now eight other counties have followed King's lead. Cops (not just the Chris Hursts but the Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs), prosecutors, and public defenders all praise it—with a new boost from research. This month the Washington State Institute for Public Policy, after reviewing 11 drug-court programs around the nation, reported that they reduced the likelihood of recidivism by a whopping 16 percent. King County drug court manager Mary Taylor reports that after one year only 9 percent of its grads had been arrested on new felonies vs. 22 percent of drop-outs and 33 percent of offenders who didn't participate. This is heckuva deal not only for those who avoid jail and turn their lives around, but for every taxpayer and potential crime victim. After crunching the numbers, the WSIPP finds that each drug-court diversion saves $2,923 in court and jail costs, plus up to $3,450 in crime losses.
So if drug court is such a bargain, why is it so hard to fund? So far, federal start-up grants have largely funded all of Washington's drug courts. But they run out after three or four years; King County is already scrambling to keep its drug court going. Ken Stark's office recommended that the state spend $6 million to shore up current drug courts and start "four or five" new ones, then downsized its request to $3 million to maintain what's here. But Gov. Gary Locke and the Department of Social and Health Services budgeted not a penny for drug courts.
Nothing personal, says Locke aide Dick Van Wagenen: "That's among many good programs that weren't included. The governor's budget is very tight and focused on a few big priorities, mainly education." Blame the voters, who passed Initiative 601, limiting state expenditures; and Referendum 49, dedicating auto-excise taxes to highways. Nevertheless, Locke's budget includes $4 million for what Van Wagenen calls a "comprehensive" anti-drug "education, treatment, and enforcement" effort to "demonstrate what you can achieve with a major infusion of resources" in Pierce County, which already may have the state's best-funded and best-organized anti-drug program.
The state (and counties) may also be playing bureaucratic chicken: Wait and see if the other guy will pay. That's only fair, argues Van Wagenen: "It appears that the primary savings from the drug courts is for the counties," since "very few of the people who would have gone to prison are eligible." Not so, says Taylor: Of one year's "graduates," 14 percent "were looking at prison."
County officials tend to see drug treatment as the state's business. "My commissioners have told me if the county has to pay for it, we will no longer have a drug court," says Spokane County Judge James Murphy. That old soft-on-crime bugaboo may also play in: Van Wagenen says he's heard from some counties where "commissioners don't want anything to do with drug treatment."
But a broad coalition of House Republicans and Democrats, led by Rep. Ida Ballasiotes (the previous champion of tough work-release and sex-offender laws) and including Chris Hurst, has entered a bill that would expand drug courts and opportunities for drug treatment. House Bill 1006, due for a hearing this week, would spend $4 million on drug courts. It would give judges authority to sentence offenders to specific treatment and rehab regimes as an alternative to jail. And it would let them consider as "mitigating factors" whether a quantity of drugs sold was tiny and the seller was a low-level flunky.
This is meant to correct a cruel and costly inequity. As Hurst says, "An addict who goes to the Bon March頡nd steals $1,000 worth of suits probably won't get any jail time. If that same addict sells a 10th of a gram of cocaine to get a 10th of a gram, the standard sentencing range is 21 to 27 months in prison." A judge could sentence that poor schmuck to treatment rather than $50,000 worth of state hospitality. Controversial as this measure is, Spokane County Judge Tari Eitzen says it may be dispensable: "We already have the statutory discretion under case law"—though many judges don't use it.
So far, drug court is only available to druggies who happen to get caught holding. But why wouldn't it work as well when the same people get caught selling or stealing? Hurst looks forward to more eruptions of sanity: "This is the first stage in a long transition in the way we deal with crime and drug abuse."