OLYMPIA — Nearly two months after the Washington Supreme Court invalidated their felony drug-possession convictions, 15 people are being released from prison by a stroke of Gov. Jay Inslee’s pen.
Inslee on Tuesday announced he had commuted the sentences of 13 incarcerated individuals, with two more expected to be signed this week.
The commutations are aimed at a small subset of the thousands of individuals affected by the ruling known as the Blake decision: people in prison solely on a drug-possession conviction that is no longer valid.
“We’re really focused on getting people who otherwise would be out of prison, but for the fact these since-invalidated convictions are keeping them there,” said Taylor Wonhoff, deputy general counsel for Inslee.
While a commutation reduces prison sentences, those whose sentences were commuted will still need the judicial system to formally clear their records, he said.
Tuesday’s announcement is the latest development since the court’s February decision, which overturned the state’s drug-possession statute and struck down decades of felony convictions.
The ruling has raised a slew of pressing questions for state officials, such as whether to bring back any kind of drug-possession criminal statute, how to vacate or resentence thousands of convictions and how to expand substance-abuse treatment for those in need.
The state Department of Corrections in early March estimated that fewer than 100 people were in prison solely on drug-possession charges.
Many of those people have already been released, Wonhoff said, as county prosecutors worked through local courts to vacate convictions.
When the governor’s office first began looking at commutations a few weeks ago, the list of incarcerated individuals totaled about 70, said Wonhoff, and then it dwindled to about 37.
By last week, as the governor’s office had decided to move forward with commutations, Wonhoff said, the list had shrunk to around two dozen individuals.
But in order for Inslee to use his authority, incarcerated individuals must petition him.
“So what we did, was created a very basic petition … which basically says, ‘Here’s my name, here’s my signature, I want a Blake commutation,'” said Wonhoff.
DOC then circulated those petitions to those in prisons for drug possession.
As of Tuesday evening, 12 of the 13 individuals have been released from facilities around the state, according to DOC, with one release pending.
King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg said that his office has been working since the Blake decision to identify people who should be released from current drug cases. He is awaiting guidance from the court on how the decision applies retroactively.
Satterberg said King County only has one person in DOC custody for a simple drug-possession case, but that case was not one of the 13 Inslee commuted.
Inslee did commute one other King County case, but Satterberg’s office said that person also had a concurrent felony charge for conspiracy to commit a drug delivery.
The county’s numbers are low, because King County has, for more than a decade, treated drug possession cases as misdemeanors, not felonies. And, since 2018, the county has for the most part not filed charges in possession cases involving less than a gram.
“I urge the Legislature to take this moment to dedicate a historic amount of funding toward treatment and recovery services for people suffering from substance use disorder,” Satterberg said in a prepared statement. “We are in the midst of an overdose crisis, and effectively addressing substance use disorder does not lie in prosecution, in jail, or in courts.”
One of the 13 people whose sentence was commuted came from Pierce County. He had filed a legal motion seeking relief of his sentence last week, and the commutation came before the court could hear the motion.
Adam Faber, a spokesperson for Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney Mary Robnett, said they are aware of two additional defendants still in custody on drug-possession charges.
Faber said they were working with the Department of Corrections on those two cases and “trying to determine whether they also have other unrelated convictions.”
The commutations are only a small part of what elected officials must do in the wake of the Blake decisions.
Thousands of other people are incarcerated or on community supervision with a drug-possession conviction along with additional convictions, and they must be resentenced accordingly.
Meanwhile, since the decision is retroactive, the courts could also have to vacate decades of convictions.
The state Superior Court Judges’ Association has asked state legislators for $77 million to handle the combined workload created by the Blake decision and a backlog created by the COVID-19 pandemic. That would fund additional court staff, judges, equipment and office space.
The governor could issue a handful of other commutations for individuals with solely a drug-possession conviction, said Wonhoff.
But Inslee would have to receive petitions from those people, Wonhoff said, and “I’m not sure how many more we’re going to see.”
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