Renton City Council members disagree about how to deal with drug offenders

The council discusses what to do in wake of the Washington Supreme Court’s “State v. Blake” decision

During the Nov. 7 Committee of the Whole meeting, the Renton City Council reviewed the Renton Legislative Agenda, a report of legislative priorities for the city developed and informed by the different city administrators and agencies with the intent to help direct and guide Renton’s state legislators on the best legislative actions for the upcoming legislative session.

The report, while not yet adopted as is by the city council, includes priority city projects in need of state funding, along with efforts and initiatives that the city values. As the report is currently written, public safety and crime reduction is a main focus, with directives specifically related to the Washington State Supreme Court’s “State v. Blake” decision which ruled the state’s law against simple possession of illicit drugs unconstitutional.

In wake of that court decision, the Washington State Legislature passed ESB 5476, a law that is intended to fill the place of the state’s previous controlled substance law until the legislature can offer a better solution, as ESB 5476 is set to expire on June 30, 2023.

ESB 5476 stipulates that the first two drug offenses be non-criminal in nature, and does not mandate any treatment or services for the offender, but does suggest that officers refer offenders to drug treatment resources, but many cities, leaders and law enforcement agencies have complained about the region’s lack of drug abuse treatment infrastructure and resources to feasibly be able to refer drug offenders to.

The author’s of Renton’s Legislative Agenda called the legislature’s attempt to address drug offenses through alternative treatment solutions that avoid incarceration a “laudable” goal, but claimed that ESB 5476 had had unintended consequences and impacts on recent rising crime trends and the effectiveness of law enforcement.

“Renton and many other cities are experiencing significant increases in criminal activity since the enactment of ESB 5476. The statute is not working, either in protecting public safety or in providing treatment and services to those who need it,” the Legislative agenda read.“There is a critical need to retool and strengthen the ESB 5476 laws so the public and judicial system have a more effective way of handling drug offenses.”

Councilmember Carmen Rivera, who has a background in criminal justice academia, objected to the agenda’s characterization of the effectiveness of ESB 5476 and the relationship between rising crime rates and the “State v. Blake” decision, saying that it bordered on misinformation.

“You are assuming there possibly is a correlation between the rise in crime we are seeing now and the passage of ‘Blake’, and we don’t have the data and the information to deduce that,” Rivera said of the agenda’s language.

Along with that point, councilmember Valerie O’Halloran asked city staff if it would be possible to see response data from the Renton Regional Fire Department and the Renton Police Department to see what kinds of calls they were being asked to respond to and trends had changed since the “State v. Blake” decision and the passage of ESB 5476.

As written, the Renton Legislative Agenda suggests a system in which drug offenders are arrested and given a court date, where they can then decide whether to be criminally charged or do go through a drug treatment diversion program with the chance to have their charge expunged if they successfully complete their court-ordered treatment.

Several council members expressed support for the current agenda which included a suggested outline of a process that began with a custodial intervention, or an arrest, so drug offenders could be given a court date where a diversion and treatment process could begin, including Councilmember Ruth Pérez, Councilmember Kim-Khánh Văn, Councilmember James Alberson, and Councilmember Ryan McIrvin.

Văn, who said she used to practice criminal law, said that sending drug offenders to court can be a point for them to be diverted to the appropriate treatment program.

Alberson cited a statistic that since the current law that instructs police officers to refer drug users to treatment services, Renton Police have reported contacting roughly 350 people regarding drug use and offered treatment services, of those people, he said less than 10 had agreed to get help when offered.

“Somebody who is not in the right state of mind, due to substances and that sort of thing, the data may say that voluntary stuff works, yeah when voluntary actions are actually taken,” Alberson said during the meeting. “But the problem here is that the voluntary actions aren’t taken.”

Rivera suggested that the voluntary referral system for drug offenders may not have had enough time or resources to see if it is truly effective, with already poor treatment infrastructure and no tracking system to hold offenders accountable. She raised concerns with the idea of going from a voluntary referral system to a zero-tolerance one.

“I don’t want us to fall back into the ‘War on Drugs’ verbiage and the ‘War on Drugs’ idea,” Rivera said. “Because we have seen what it is to incarcerate and adjudicate people who have addictions, we have seen it for the last almost 40 years and it hasn’t been the most effective because here we are again.”

Rivera said she would like to see more investments and efforts to help support the referral system, rather than the first interaction with law enforcement to result in an arrest.

Councilmember Valerie O’Halloran said the council’s budget should help fund a program for different kinds of responders to these incidents, possibly other than law enforcement, that could help those suffering from drug abuse navigate their way through treatment service. She suggested a program like that may help increase the amount of successful voluntary referrals to treatment.

The council’s discussion around the City of Renton’s Legislative Agenda will continue in the future.