SEATTLE — Attorney General Eric Holder announced earlier this week that federal prosecutors would not seek mandatory minimum prison sentences for low-level, non-violent drug offenders. He said the country incarcerates way too many people whose lives are being destroyed by prison, not helped. It’s a big change from the practice of zero-tolerance since the ‘War on Drugs’ began three decades ago.
The direct effect of Holder’s efforts to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences would be on inmates in the federal prison system. But he’s clearly sending a signal that local jurisdictions should follow suit.
In King County, Satterberg said his office has actually been using just such an approach for quite some time.
“You know the feds are sometimes late to the party,” Satterberg said. “But just cause you’re late to the party doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be invited, especially when you bring chips and dip, which they always bring with them. So they’ve got money, they’ve got ideas, they have a new enthusiasm for re-entry from prison to the community.”
The numbers out of Satterberg’s officer are dramatic. King County used to account for one-third of all felony drug convictions in Washington. That number now? Only 7 percent.
“What good is really coming out of giving somebody a felony conviction, which has a stigma that lasts for a lifetime, for possessing a tiny amount for personal use?” asked Satterberg. “Just going to prison, that has a negative impact on the entire community where that person comes from. And we lose our moral authority in law enforcement if our solution is more harmful than the problem.”
Satterberg said the answer is not just moving away from minimum sentences. It’s also about making sure meaningful support services exist, including Drug Court, which offers offenders a chance to avoid jail if they agree to treatment. His office has also pioneered other incarceration alternatives.
“We even have a LEAD program in Belltown where a police officer has a choice upon arrest to take someone directly to a treatment program,” he said. “They bypass the jail entirely.”
Satterberg believes the new federal leadership will encourage other local jurisdictions to finally end not the war on drugs, but the war on drug users.
“We’re reclaiming lives. We’re making taxpayers out of people who used to be tax burdens, and I think it’s the proper approach,” he said.
In part because of what King County is doing, Washington State ranks 44th in the nation in incarceration rate, meaning only 6 states use prison less.