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Cowlitz County Prosecutor's Office tackles overhaul in state drug possession law and pandemic's court backlog
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Cowlitz County Prosecutor's Office tackles overhaul in state drug possession law and pandemic's court backlog

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Ryan Jurvakainen

Documents — which track simple drug possession cases that need to be dismissed, vacated or resentenced in light of a February state Supreme Court decision — cover the desk of Cowlitz County Prosecuting Attorney Ryan Jurvakainen Monday in Kelso.

Thanks to a February state Supreme Court decision, Cowlitz County prosecutors are spending more hours correcting previously resolved cases, while balancing a backlog of work created by the pandemic.

A state Supreme Court decision to decriminalize simple drug possession has left the Cowlitz County Prosecutor’s Office scrambling to dismiss charges, erase convictions or resentence those convicted of possessing controlled substances for personal use, as opposed to selling or distributing drugs.

The decision made the previous roughly 40 years of convictions of simple drug possession in Washington void. In some cases, prosecutors are starting from square one.

Legislation changes

In February, the state Supreme Court ruled the state’s simple drug possession law was unconstitutional because prosecutors did not have to prove intent. Suspects could be arrested and charged for possessing drugs even if they didn’t know narcotics were on them, the court ruled in what is known as the Blake decision.

A new simple drug possession law took effect July 25.

‘Time-intensive work’

People in custody for pending or convicted of simple possession charges were the first to be addressed in March, said Cowlitz County Prosecuting Attorney Ryan Jurvakainen.

Withdrawing charges and vacating convictions that only addressed simple possession resolved about 911 cases, according to office records. The process included completing paperwork, Jurvakainen said.

But “what was a lot of busy work, has turned into more time-intensive work,” he added.

Now staff are focusing on resentencing cases involving convictions on multiple charges. So far, about 75 cases have been resentenced — always for less time since charges on the old simple drug possession law are no longer admissible.

Those cases can include simultaneous convictions of simple drug possession as well as other crimes, like assault or theft. The cases can also include convictions that were lengthened due to criminal history involving the now unconstitutional law.

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Cases with convictions in addition to simple drug possession are starting at square one. Staff are recalculating sentences and previously convicted defendants, who are currently in custody, are reappearing in front of judges to be resentenced. Victims may be asked to re-testify, Jurvakainen said, or at least hear that lighter sentences are on the way. Sentences could drop from days to years, depending on the crime and date, he said.

He added that victims are questioning why their cases — which may have nothing to do with drug possession — are affected by the state Supreme Court decision.

“A lot of times, with more serious crimes, it opens wounds,” Jurvakainen said. “Obviously, there’s some frustration.”

Backlog

The office currently has about 250 unresolved cases related to the Blake decision flagged in its computer system, but Jurvakainen said there are likely thousands more. The prosecutor’s office has about 5 to 10 hearings on Blake cases a week.

Prosecutors handle Blake cases in addition to a backlog of court cases created by the pandemic. Jurvakainen said pending trials involving felony and misdemeanor charges have doubled for his office, where “resources are tough anyway.”

As of July 20, Cowlitz County Superior Court reported it was facing roughly 43% more active felony criminal cases and 33% more active family dispute cases than average pre-pandemic levels.

About a month ago, Jurvakainen said 85 cases required defendants to be summoned to court for their first appearance. Newly arrested people can only be held for 72 hours if charges are not filed. Defendants from those 85 cases missed the deadline and now have to be called back. The delay may affect the amount of witnesses available and witnesses’ memory, Jurvakainen said.

At the June 30 county commissioners’ meeting, the prosecutor’s office requested funds to tackle the onslaught of work. The office requested $210,864 for two temporary attorneys — one each for the county’s higher and lower court — and $70,764 for a temporary employee to guide victims through the court process. The office also requested $22,500 for supplies like computers, licensing fees and office furniture. Funding has yet to be determined.

Future

In two years, Jurvakainen said he foresees staff working on Blake cases that are less immediate, and more “residual.” These cases will likely involve people, who are no longer in custody, requesting their drug convictions be withdrawn, a process that requires paperwork but not the added time of recalculating sentences and contacting witnesses.

Requests may dribble in for years, he added.

“It’s going to affect cases for a very long time,” he said.

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