Does the King County Prosecutor want to decriminalize heroin?
Many believe Dan Satterberg is moving in that direction after he admittedly asked police departments last year to not send his office cases for prosecution where a suspect was in possession of one gram or less of heroin. Officers on the street tell KOMO News the defacto limit is closer to five grams.
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Satterburg has made it no secret that he wants to take a harm reduction approach when dealing with suspects who are also addicts, believing incarceration does not work. He’s not alone.
In May, he joined 20 other elected prosecutors from several major US cities including San Francisco, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Washington DC, and Baltimore for a trip to Lisbon Portugal. Twenty years ago, the country of 10 million was facing an incredible crisis of addiction and crime with 1% of the country’s population addicted to drugs.
Portugal decided to decriminalize “personal use” of not just heroin but all illegal drugs. Since then, the Ministry of Health has said overdose deaths have dropped 80 percent and drug-related crime has dropped significantly.
“They adopted this policy that if you’re found with a small amount of personal-use drugs, rather than take you to jail, they brought you in front of a group called the dissuasion commission,” Satterburg said.
The commission is made up of medical professionals rather than judges. They’ll offer the person drug treatment, if they want it, and there’s no jail time. It’s important to note, Portugal has government-subsidized health care.
“They did not wholesale decriminalize drugs, they medicalized their response to personal use.” Satterburg said. “If you sell, you are going to prison. It's still a conservative country in that way.”
But did the trip influence any decision to push for decriminalizing heroin in King County. Satterburg says no, but he clearly believes much of what he saw in Portugal is working.
“To me, the most important thing is that they look at people who use drugs as people; people who have human rights that deserve our passion and our help,” Satterburg said. “And the politics around drug use is not what it is in the United States and there is a given that this is a medical issue and needs a medical solution.”
Satterburg is a member of Fair and Just Prosecution, a group of new age elected district attorneys who believe the criminal justice system is too big and doesn’t work for drug addicts. The group paid for the trip to Portugal for the prosecutors.
“These new prosecutors have run on an agenda of taking a different tact, that’s looking for different strategies” says Miriam Aroni Krinsky, the Founder and Executive Director of Fair and Just Prosecution. “The threat of incarceration, the hammer of jail doesn’t work.”
“Last year we stopped prosecuting under a gram and saved about $3 million as a county in lawyers and court time” Satterburg said.
He would like to see the savings go to LEAD, a pre-court diversion program where prosecutors, defense attorneys and police work together to get some addicts into services and avoid jail time.
Since LEAD started in 2011 in King County, it has handled the cases of 700 individuals. Satterburg is pushing for its expansion.
“We need to think seriously about new investments in housing and in treatment on-demand in the kind of outreach that I saw work very well in Portugal,” Satterburg said.
Krinsky says the prosecutors in her organization “recognize that mass incarceration and criminalizing” various health relation issues “have led to the justice system simply exploding in size.”
“We leave it to the very smart individuals that we brought on the trip to take back what they think is most going to resonate and be most successful in their community,” Krinsky said.
Portugal made a brave move to decriminalize drugs and not jailing addicts. Satterburg said for King County to experience similar success, it will require a culture shift.
“When we find somebody who is clearly addicted, that jail cell doesn't help them and we know it doesn't help,” Satterburg said. “So we should stop using it. Instead, lets use the things that medical science tell us will work.”
Portugal is about to embark on a network of mobile injection units. Seattle has set aside $1.5 million for one, but the plan is currently on hold.