The Washington State Supreme Court in February declared unconstitutional the state’s strict liability possession statue, invalidating thousands of felony drug convictions, some of them decades old. The court’s decision in State v. Blake was a watershed event across the state.
For King County Drug Diversion Court, it was more like a current, carrying us in a direction we’d already been going. Unlike many jurisdictions, King County Drug Diversion Court moved away from simple drug possession crimes years ago. Felony crimes like vehicle theft, residential burglary, identity theft and organized retail theft — committed to finance an underlying substance-use disorder — have long comprised the majority of King County Drug Diversion Court cases.
KCDDC provides an offramp from incarceration and the legal system. Those who successfully complete the program get their charges dismissed in as few as 10 months. For people of color, who are disproportionately and unfairly represented in the criminal legal system, this offramp is an important response to the systemic racism that infects the criminal system. And it represents a second or third chance at treatment and recovery for people who have already received pre-filing diversion.
Substance-use disorders can affect anyone, but some face greater barriers to recovery. The majority of KCDDC participants are experiencing homelessness when they enter the program. So, in addition to substance-use disorder treatment and access to medications for opioid-use disorder, King County Drug Diversion Court provides whatever program participants need to be successful, whether it’s transitional housing, a bus pass to get to treatment, or a phone and minutes so they can do telehealth.
KCDDC is effective because it relies on “contingency management,” an evidence-based practice that includes regular hearings before a judge, frequent random drug testing, and clear written expectations with rewards when they are met and predictable consequences when they are not. Case managers and certified peers with lived experience with addiction and recovery support and encourage participants, helping them set personally meaningful goals.
In addition to the victims of felony property crimes, families and communities are often negatively affected by an individuals’ substance-use disorder. Many KCDDC participants are parents of minor children and many others are young adults who will go on to become parents. The program helps to prevent childhood trauma caused by parental substance use and incarceration, and increases family income and stability.
Data shows KCDDC significantly reduces recidivism, decreases homelessness and increases employment. To date, there have been more than 2,729 program graduates representing more than 3,423 dismissed felony cases. The program has continued throughout the pandemic, using video meetings and phone calls to keep participants connected. Increasingly, there are calls to reform the legal system. As changes are made, we must hold on to what works.
The larger community also is well served by KCDDC. A Department of Social and Health Services analysis of drug-court participants in Washington found significant reductions in crime translated into a net benefit to taxpayers of a $4 return on every $1 invested.
Advocates for criminal-system reforms recognize that a variety of substance-use disorder interventions are needed. Drug court should be among them. Gov. Jay Inslee proclaimed May 2021 Drug Court Month, stating, “Drug courts transform participants’ lives, resulting in safer, healthier families and communities that benefit us all.”
Substance-use disorder is increasingly recognized as a public-health matter rather than a criminal one. We are all better off for this, and it’s long overdue. As King County seeks more equitable and effective ways to respond to substance-use disorder, homelessness, racial injustice, criminal legal reform, community safety and adverse childhood experiences, King County Drug Diversion Court — a program founded 25 years ago — has never been timelier.