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Hello readers! With the opening of eligibility to people 16 and over last week, we bet you've had COVID-19 vaccines on the brain—we know we have. Also top of mind? The approaching trial verdict in the murder of George Floyd and the devastating shootings of Daunte Wright and Adam Toledo. April has been a lot and we hope this issue finds you well in the middle of it. 

But first, a bit of housekeeping. This is our sole issue this month. Between a bereavement, vaccine chaos (we got ours, one more to go!), and other life rollercoasters, we need a quick pause. We'll be back to our regularly scheduled programing in May.
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This issue, we're taking a look at what the Washington State Supreme Court's overturning of our state's drug possession law means for those in the criminal justice system, with the help of a local public defender. You'll also meet the creative whose underwater adventures inspire her art and advocacy

Sea Change

Washington's Supreme Court decision to strike down the state's strict liability drug possession law has lawyers working overtime to see which clients may suddenly be eligible for reduced sentences.
Outside the Temple of Justice building in Olympia, Washington, which houses the state's Supreme Court. The court's March decision to strike down a part of state law that criminalized drug possession caused massive overnight changes for people in the court and prison system. Image by Cascade Creatives.

“It was like a bomb dropped.”

That’s the way Kitsap County public defense attorney Laura Schulman describes last March, when the Washington Supreme Court struck down a portion of state law that criminalized drug possession.
That law had a particularly troubling edge to it unique to Washington: It was a strict liability drug law, meaning prosecutors
didn’t need to prove criminal intent.

“A lot of times people will say, ‘This wasn't my jacket,’ or ‘Those weren’t my pants, I didn’t know it was in there!’ Well, it didn't matter in Washington if you knew it or not. It was assumed that you knew and it was assumed they were yours because you were in possession of them,” says Schulman.


Most expected a legislative solution to the strict drug possession law, such as Oregon’s first-of-its-kind drug decriminalization measure that went into effect last year, which Schulman applauds. But, in Washington, no one saw the Supreme Court ruling, known as the Blake decision, coming—and no one was prepared.

Nearly two months in, the repercussions are rippling through Washington courts and lawyers like Schulman are caught trying to untangle it all. It affects people awaiting their day in court as well as those who have already had theirs and are doing time—people with multi-layered records that are impacted by, but not solely composed of, drug possession. According to the most recent information from Drug Policy Alliance, there were more than 1.6 million drug arrests in 2018 in the United States; more than 86% of those were for possession. Women are a fast-growing segment of the U.S. prison population, and as of 2015, 24,700 women were in state prisons on drug charges and 27,000 in local jails.

Schulman, a Texas native who has been a Kitsap public defender representing people charged with felony crime since 2015, is also the assigned attorney for THRIVE (Teaching, Healing, Resilience, Independence, Voice, and Empowerment) Court, a therapeutic court started by the Kitsap prosecutor’s office several years ago. THRIVE is unique among therapeutic courts because it focuses on survivors of human trafficking or exploitation, mostly womxn, where there is often a drug component. Schulman says the Supreme Court decision’s impact on therapeutic courts is a little more complicated.

We chatted with Schulman about the effects of the Supreme Court’s decision, now and into the future.

P&L: What was the reason behind the state Supreme Court's decision?

Laura Schulman: Their reasoning was that Washington is the only state in the entire country that had a strict liability drug law. What that means is that there's no mens rea [intention or knowledge of wrongdoing], meaning you didn't need to know that you possessed drugs to be convicted of drug possession.

So essentially the Supreme Court described that as "passive innocent conduct" and that it violated due process to convict somebody of a felony, which has extreme consequences.

For example, I had a client who was struggling with homelessness and he was walking down the road. He was arrested for an outstanding warrant. So [a cop] picked him up and found some drugs in a pocket of one of his jackets. Well he was wearing multiple jackets because he's outside all the time and what he told me was, “I picked these up.” They had a box of donated clothes [at the food line] and you could pick stuff up.

And so, I just brought all the jackets in for the jury, you know—it was like six. The burden would shift to me and the defendant to prove that he didn’t know that they were there, which is extremely unfair.


P&L: What impact does this decision have on the people you represent?

LS: I'm a public defender. I'm dealing with people that are just dealing with—everything's a struggle that you can imagine; a lot of them have grown up in the foster care system, or if they didn't, they have had an extremely turbulent childhood, and lives in general, and oftentimes grew up with parents who were substance abusers so they then become substance abusers themselves. It's this cycle, unfortunately, for a lot of people and it's tough to break out of. So this opinion is interesting.

It's definitely something that I think  most people would have expected the legislature to take care of. Essentially Oregon’s legislature went in and decriminalized most drugs, which is a very progressive, and not so farfetched, thing to do nowadays because everybody in the criminal justice world who has any sort of perspective is leaning in that direction.

And so there was chatter about, “Oh is Washington going to do something similar?” And then this opinion came out and it was like a bomb dropped.

The morning the opinion came out, I had a guy in court who was ready to plead guilty to a possession and I was like, “Well, [now] we’re not going to do that!” It's a mix of confusion and excitement.

When a Supreme Court or higher-level court says that a law is unconstitutional, that means not only is it unconstitutional right now, but it's always been unconstitutional. It’s retroactive.

In Washington, we have a point system. So every felony that you have counts as a point for your offender score. I had a guy who had an offender score of 15, and he went down to an offender score of five.

We should have other support and other infrastructure that assist people like this, rather than just sending them through the meat grinder of the criminal justice system.
P&L: You mentioned this decision is having an unusual impact on the womxn you represent in THRIVE court, can you explain that?

LS: Essentially [THRIVE] is a court geared towards survivors of human trafficking, women who have, you know, been under the thumb of somebody and used for sex and usually controlled with drugs. They’re told “OK well you have to make me this much money and post this many ads and then I'll give you some drugs and let you live here” basically. So a lot of these women we ended up making contact with because they're arrested for things like drug possession. 

I think it's a good thing that you're not getting arrested for drug possession anymore. But at the same time, a lot of these people [who are being trafficked] really need help, and sometimes the only way for them to get it is through the criminal justice system, which is incredibly sad, and it shouldn't be that way.

We should have other support and other infrastructure that assist people like this, rather than just sending them through the meat grinder of the criminal justice system.

P&L:
Is there any sense of whether there will be additional action from the legislature on drugs?

LS: I think it says a lot that they didn't just immediately fix it, I mean, they could have.

[The decision] gives me some hope that we will do something like Oregon because I think that is just so much more in line with everything, all the trends and research of everything that says that punishing drug addicts is completely, you know, useless.

P&L: What are the next steps?

LS: My office is getting a number of calls every day from people in prison saying, “Hey I think I can get out of here.”

I think the Department of Corrections was directed to release any of those serving only for drug possession, and that was done right away, but then, the next level up are people who are serving for drug possession and something else, which is very common. My boss was telling me there were about 1,600 people that he was looking at that are dealing with that.

Then the next level up is, I had a client call me and say, “I'm serving a sentence for this crime but I have a bunch of prior possessions that shouldn't count against me anymore.” So he's serving a sentence for something that's not related at all.

We're going to be dealing with this for at least the next three years, if not longer, trying to figure all this out because there's just not enough manpower. Not to mention, you know, we have caseload limits.

I think there's probably going to be a lot of people out there accusing our Supreme Court of being quote-unquote “activist judges” for something like this.

It left a lot of work for a lot of people, especially my boss and people in administrative positions, but that's okay because you know—it's the right thing to do.

By Niki StojnicThis interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

She Made It

Who is the Seattle-based ocean diver and linocut artist behind this zebra shark print? Tap for all the details!
 

ATTN:

What to see or do this week/end

Washington state is currently subject to Governor Inslee's Healthy Washington—Roadmap to Recovery plan until further notice (be sure to check the latest Washington State Coronavirus Response Guidelines). We're highlighting ways to engage and support the community safely.
Niki 

Thursday, April 22, is Earth Day, and the Black Farmers Collective and Town Hall will be hosting a virtual Black Earth Day fest, featuring a panel discussion of Black urban farming and the environmental movement. Register here.

Catch the Seattle Black Film Festival from now til April 26. All virtual, films are accessible throughout the festival period, plus there will be livestream events at designated times over the weekend. Check out the Director's Spotlight on the 23rd, highlighting a selection of short films. Buy tickets.

This year's Seattle Independent Bookstore Day will look a little different than before. The 10-10-10 Challenge has you visit, online or in person, 10 bookstores over 10 days (April 24–May 3) and make 10 purchases. A limited-edition tote bag awaits you at the end; 21 bookstores are participating. Get your passport and more info here.
Nia 

As of this month, poet Rena Priest is Washington state's new Poet Laureate. A member of the Lhaq’temish (Lummi) Nation, Priest is Washington's first Indigenous poet to assume the role. You can find her books, Patriarchy Blues and Sublime Subliminal here.

Don't miss Anastacia-Reneé: (Don’t be Absurd) Alice in Parts at the Frye Museum. The writer and interdisciplinary artist's exhibition explores the detrimental effects of gentrification as seen through Anastacia-Reneé's character creation: Alice Metropolis. Grab tickets before it closes after the 25th. 

When it comes to vaccines reaching every Washingtonian, deep inequities in access continue. Consider a contribution to All in Washington's Vaccine Equity Initiative, which works with community organizations to address barriers so vaccines can reach more people in our state. 
We love what we do here at P&L—and hope you do, too! 

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That's all for now! We hope you've enjoyed this issue of Parts & Labor—keep washing your hands, wear those masks, and look for the next issue in May. Check out past issues here, and SUBSCRIBE!

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