Inslee hints at commuting hundreds of drug possession sentences

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Gov. Jay Inslee says he is willing to commute up to 1,200 sentences for illicit drug possession in accordance with the Washington Supreme Court's historic ruling on the matter.

The high court's ruling in the case of State of Washington v. Blake earlier in 2021 determined unwitting drug possession was a victimless offense and therefore not a crime. The 5-4 ruling sent shockwaves through the state's legal system that has since vacated hundreds of cases. State lawmakers again criminalized simple drug possession in April, this time as a gross misdemeanor punishable with fines and rehabilitation evaluations. Distributing illicit drugs remains a felony.

Washington counties testified earlier this year that hundreds of other drug cases invalidated by the state's high court could spell 100 million problems for them in the coming years. Inslee's announcement underscores the governor's interest in easing the financial burden on cities and counties which would otherwise have to retry an uncertain number of past.

“COVID has created countless challenges in our criminal justice system,” Inslee said. “I am committed to doing what I can to try to remedy the situation and assist the courts who are doing what they can to get through this backlog of cases.”

According to the governor's office, 1,200 people in Washington are serving sentences for illicit drug possession whose charges were invalidated by the state supreme court's historic ruling. Many are also people of color, who account for a disproportionate percentage of drug possession cases in the state.

Based on 20 years of caseload data pulled from the state's Caseload Forecast Council, the American Equity and Justice Group reports that Black people were almost five times more likely to be convicted of illicit drug possession than their white peers.

Currently, people under active community supervision for many drug possession charges can petition the governor for clemency. Under Inslee's new offer, he says he's prepared to issue unconditional commutations to all eligible petitioners. That means ending such supervision as well as forgiving all outstanding fines. In April, Inslee commuted the sentences of 18 people convicted on now invalidated drug possession charges.

The state supreme court's ruling on drug possession coincides with scores of new criminal justice reforms in Washington state. Many are less than welcome among law enforcement and Washington Republicans. GOP leaders in Olympia have now called on their peers to convene a special session to amend the police bills they helped to tweak this spring.

Washington lawmakers can be called into the state capitol by either the governor or a two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate. Washington Democrats have not signaled their intent to do so this year.

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