WA softened drug penalties last year. Now some South King County cities are cracking down
For months, a coalition of mayors in South King County has criticized state and county approaches to public safety. In an open letter published in August, they blamed methamphetamine and “a flood of fentanyl” for an increase in violence and property crimes.
Now these Western Washington cities are passing their own drug laws. But critics say that’s a step in the wrong direction.
This year, the cities of Federal Way, Kent, and now Auburn have enacted new penalties for drug offenses. They say the ordinances are in response to increased incidents of open drug use, theft, and vandalism.
On July 18, about a dozen small business owners in the city of Auburn, southeast of Seattle, gave their city council an earful during the public comment period.
“I have never felt so unsafe in this little town as I do now,” said restaurant owner Giovanni DiQuattro.
Kristina Driesen said people had been following and threatening her when she entered her business.
“I carry a Taser, I’m going to use it,” she said, “And I can tell you that if I get harmed in that parking lot, there’s going to be hell to pay.”
Ronnie Roberts, owner of Gosanko Chocolate, told council members, “Change the ordinances, do whatever you need to do, but get it fixed.”
And store owner Katy Selden said her own employees were fearful of coming to work after their windows were shattered.
“I’m tired of apologizing, I’m tired of telling them it will get better, I’m tired of making excuses,” she said.
Mayor Nancy Backus told them she was listening. She blamed many of their problems on changes to state law that took effect last summer.
“Drugs are basically legal anywhere you go now in this state,” Backus said.
Last year, in the “Blake” decision, the Washington Supreme Court threw out the state’s felony drug law as unconstitutional.
Legislators debated the possibility of decriminalizing drug possession, but ultimately made it a misdemeanor. They softened that by requiring police to refer someone to services at least twice before arresting them. That law took effect on July 25, 2021, which Backus called "one of the worst days in the state of Washington."
Auburn Police Chief Mark Caillier said the law is unworkable, because there’s no way to track those referrals between cities. In practice, he said his officers give out a business card with links. But people they contact rarely pursue those services.
“They’re addicted to whatever substance they’re using, so they’re not making rational decisions to begin with,” Caillier said. “So giving them a referral really has no consequence.”
Auburn also has a drug ordinance of its own, passed in 2018. For people convicted of drug-related offenses, it allows the courts to issue orders banning them from entering “anti-drug emphasis areas” like parks and school grounds in the city.
This month, the city council expanded those areas, and increased the penalties for people who violate those orders. It is now a gross misdemeanor, with a maximum penalty of 364 days in jail and/or a $5,000 fine. And in certain cases, people will now face a mandatory minimum sentence of 30 days in jail. That applies to people who violate these orders within 1,000 feet of a playground, daycare or school; commit a violation that involves assault or other acts of violence; or a third or subsequent violation of the orders.
Chief Caillier supports the change, saying he hopes people who receive the mandatory minimum sentence will feel more compelled to seek services.
“For me, it’s another way to get people into treatment," he said. "To try to get a handle on the recidivism that we see.”
But opponents of incarceration say a state task force is already working to expand treatment resources, with a plan due in December. They also argue that jailing people with addiction will only make their problems worse.
Mark Cooke is policy director for the Smart Justice campaign with the ACLU of WA.
“Saddling somebody with a lifelong criminal record just makes it more difficult for them to access services and find housing, get education, get a job down the road,” he said. “There are alternatives that will be more effective.”
In support of the new penalties, officials with the Auburn City Attorney’s Office argued, in essence, that the longer jail stay would give people with substance use disorder more time to access treatment and medical services.
Devon Schrum is the executive director of SCORE (South Correctional Entity), the jail which serves South King County cities, including Auburn. She elaborated on that rationale.
“I don’t wish jail on anybody. I don’t. And I don’t have control over who comes to the jail," Schrum said. But, “For the people who do come to the jail, then our goal is to get them the services that they need. And it’s tougher with an average length of stay of 11 days versus say, 30 days. That is probably one area where we might have a bigger impact.”
She added that SCORE currently provides access to drug counseling and medication-assisted treatment. To date, 1,100 people have received those services there.
“We’re able to continue on medications to keep people stable – we’re one of the few jails that actually has methadone here,” Schrum said.
She said they also obtained grant funding to provide a so-called “warm handoff,” transporting people to their first counseling appointment upon release.
Auburn’s new 30-day minimum sentence took effect on Oct. 10 — the courts haven’t used it yet. But back in downtown Auburn, Kacie Bray with the Auburn Area Chamber of Commerce said the city has been responsive to their concerns and is now offering reimbursement for shattered windows, installing new public lighting, and conducting more police patrols.
“The city council is trying to adopt ways to help businesses and help our community and I think it has made a difference,” she said.
Bray credited the resumption of in-person public comment as key for residents to convey their concerns to elected officials at that meeting in July.
Katy Selden — the shop owner who broke down in tears at the city council meeting — said the hours at her store The Classic Farmhouse are still limited, but conditions are getting better.
“It does feel safer and hopefully that will filter out through the community. It’s just rebuilding that with our customers and our clients,” she said.
How Washington state approaches the issue of substance use disorder in general will be a big question in the next legislative session — the current law making drug possession a misdemeanor is set to expire next summer.