Tri-City law enforcement officials are concerned about a proposed bill in the state legislature to change the way first-time drug offenders are charged.
The bill would make possession of nearly an ounce and a half of an illegal drug -- 40 grams -- a misdemeanor, rather than a felony.
"It's shocking that someone would propose that," said Richland Police Capt. Mike Cobb. "For someone to propose possessing 40 grams of drugs as a misdemeanor is just shocking. It's another attempt to remove personal accountability from the law."
The bill's sponsor, state Rep. Sherry Appleton, D-Paulsbo, doesn't want first-time drug offenders with no criminal history to have to carry the burden of a felony conviction for their entire lives, she said.
Never miss a local story.
Too many people are locked up in prisons across the U.S. for drug possession, she said.
"The last thing you want on your record is a felony," Appleton told the Herald on Friday. "You become part of a permanent underclass. We have unintentionally developed an underclass that will never ever get out of that. I think that is absolutely absurd."
Officials around the Tri-Cities called Appleton's bill irresponsible, concerning and a bad piece of public policy.
They say it wouldn't hold offenders accountable for their actions and could increase recidivism rates. They stressed that 40 grams of hard drugs such as methamphetamine, cocaine and heroin is too much for personal use.
Hard drugs fuel a majority of crime in the area and the current law is appropriate for drug offenders, they say. The majority of cases where people are arrested for drug possession involve other crimes. Currently, it's a felony in Washington state to possess any amount of methamphetamine, heroin, cocaine or other illegal controlled substances.
Pasco Police Chief Bob Metzger believes the proposed bill opens the door to the legalization of all drugs, something he is strongly against, he said. It also takes the financial burden off state corrections to keep offenders incarcerated and puts the responsibility back on local counties.
"I don't think there is a benefit to this," he said. "This is something we need to be concerned with. There is no benefit to using meth, heroin or cocaine, but we are saying we are going to start reducing charges?"
Treatment-based alternative sentencing programs like Benton-Franklin Adult Drug Court also give offenders the opportunity to clean their record, officials said. Those who qualify have their felony charge wiped away if they complete treatment. Many counties across the state use the drug court model.
The drug court program has shown Benton County Sheriff Steve Keane that a majority of drug offenders need the penalties that go with a felony to motivate them to change, he said.
Keane believes defelonizing drug possession gives offenders the opportunity to scam the system and continue to commit crimes.
"I don't think that turning your back on crime and focusing on the things you think are important is the way to go," he said. "Drugs are a huge deal. People commit crimes on drugs and kill people in automobile accidents."
Local prosecutors believe the proposed bill would not accomplish much because first-time drug offenders don't face prison time anyways, they said. The standard range for a first-time drug offender with no criminal history is zero to 90 days in a local jail.
The legislation could actually increase the number of violent crimes because it would put drug addicts back on the streets, said Benton County Prosecutor Andy Miller. Miller believes the treatment options Benton County, and other counties across the state, offer as part of alternative sentencing are adequate.
"Drugs like meth, cocaine and heroin cause physical and mental health problems," Miller said. "A step like this would only increase people using and becoming addicted."
Franklin County Prosecutor Shawn Sant doesn't agree with Appleton that there are a lot of offenders in prison because of drug possession, he said. Seven percent of the male population and 17 percent of the female population in Washington prisons are serving time for drug offenses.
Sant is worried the proposed legislation could lead to more crime and hurt local agencies financially, he said.
"The concern for the proposed legislation is that this will do nothing to free up the court system," he said. "We are simply moving offenders into our district courts, which will take away more money from cities and counties as the burden is shifted from the state to local level."
The former police chief in Seattle, Norm Stamper, has a different view. He thinks the proposed bill will allow law enforcement agencies to focus more on violent crimes and give young offenders a chance to start over.
Stamper is on the advisory committee for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, or LEAP, an organization focused on legalizing drugs while creating a system to regulate, distribute and use them.
Like Appleton, Stamper emphasized that being charged with a misdemeanor in district court does hold people accountable and can be an effective form of punishment, he said.
"There's an awful lot of experimentation that goes on early in life that is abandoned later in life," Stamper said. "But if you get arrested and charged with a felony that will affect you for the rest of your life -- that is just not right."
Other lawmakers will have the opportunity to consider the bill when the new legislative session starts in January, Appleton said.
Appleton is hopeful legislators will realize the impact a felony drug conviction can have on a young person's life, she said.
"I have seen this time and time again. Some young person gets caught up in this and their life is ruined," she said. "We have to look at our laws and find ways to keep people out of prison."
-- Tyler Richardson: 582-1556; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter; @Ty_richardson