Herbold: Improved Drug Law Authority Prioritizes Diversion Over Prosecution

The Seattle City Council approved legislation today, co-sponsored by Councilmember Lisa Herbold (District 1 – West Seattle and South Park) and proposed by Mayor Bruce Harrell, that will put treatment and diversion at the forefront of the City’s response to public drug use and possession.  

“As a legislator, sometimes you must have the conviction to vote ‘no,’ to get to a better version of ‘yes.’ The bill that passed today is vastly improved over the bill that failed in June. While this compromise legislation is not perfect, it makes unprecedented legal commitments to noncriminal intervention of public drug use while allowing police to take action when necessary,” said Councilmember Herbold. 

“We know a police-only response to addiction will not work. This legislation acknowledges that and, for the first time in Seattle, explicitly states that diversion and treatment should be the foundation of our response to drug use,” she continued.  

This measure is the result of collaboration and compromise between advocates, elected officials, and law enforcement. The legislation, which creates a new framework for police policies that will be developed following the bill’s passage, will:  

  • Establish diversion, treatment, and other alternatives to jail as the City’s preferred approach to public drug use and possession;  
  • Creating clear guidance for when and how Seattle police officers should use pre-arrest diversion and pre-booking diversion, the former doesn’t include any arrest at all; and 
  • Limiting prosecution to be a last resort. 

As the legislation gives new authority to the City Attorney’s Office, the legislation includes important comprehensive and independent reporting requirements to assess the impact of the legislation. It also establishes a behavioral health advisory committee to advise the city on any needed changes.  

“We manage a diversion model, LEAD, that arose directly out of years of systemic litigation challenging racial discrimination in Seattle drug enforcement. It is a concern that most diversion efforts nationally over many years tend to exacerbate racial disparities among those left to the criminal legal system when they are not offered diversion; knowing this, we explicitly designed LEAD to have safeguards to prevent that pattern from playing out here,” said Lisa Daugaard and Tara Moss, Co-Executive Directors of Purpose. Dignity. Action.  

They continued, “Those concerned about implicit bias in enforcement practices are, of course, correct. This is always something to guard against—in all criminal enforcement, not just with respect to this one ordinance. Therefore, it is essential that Seattle’s framework establishing a presumption of diversion, have a requirement of data collection and regular reporting on the race of those diverted and the race of those facing jail and prosecution, if any.”  

“We appreciate Councilmembers Herbold and Lewis for building in that safeguard, and the Mayor for welcoming it and underscoring how valid these concerns are. We know it is possible to create a diversion system that actually advances race equity—a U.S. research team has found that all of LEAD’s benefits have been distributed proportionately to BIPOC participants, and our project management team is oriented to ask this question daily with regard to all aspects of LEAD practice. It’s important that such an approach be built into Seattle’s legal framework for responding to drug activity,” they concluded. 

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