Proposed Drug Sentencing Changes Concern Lewis County Undersheriff

By Aaron Kunkler / akunkler@chronline.com

Provisions in the 2017 proposed budgets from the Washington state Legislature have caused concern for the Lewis County undersheriff in charge of the jail.

Undersheriff Wes Rethwill said in a county commissioners meeting on Monday that he was keeping his eyes on language in both houses’ budgets that could redraw drug sentencing guidelines, lowering incarceration time and landing more inmates in the county jail instead of state prisons. 

“Rather than the state bearing the cost of housing an inmate for said crime, those individuals would spend their time for those crimes within local facilities,” Rethwill said. 

A spokesperson for the state Senate Ways and Means Committee said the bill has been amended recently to include concerns from local law enforcement. 

The largest piece of Senate Bill 5904 that caused concern from sheriffs and jail administrators, he said, is a provision that reduced simple possession of a controlled substance to an unranked felony. This would have consequently lowered the sentencing range for the offense from more than one year to under one.

Inmates sentenced to less than one year and one day of incarceration generally serve their terms in county jails instead of state prisons. 

Rethwill said this would have put the county in an even greater financial pinch. 

The cost to keep an inmate incarcerated is roughly $90 daily, he said. 

Lewis County’s jail roster currently has 210 inmates and when fully staffed, has the capacity to house up to 350. 

But the jail has been running on a staffing deficit for nearly a decade. There are seven vacant positions for corrections deputies at the moment. If these positions were all filled, the jail could house up to 250 inmates. 

An additional 10 positions, which were cut between 2008 and 2012 and which are unfunded now, would be required to reach the maximum population of 350, Rethwill said. 

Housing additional inmates would strain jail staff, Rethwill said. 

He also views the moves in the Legislature as an attempt by the state to shift funding responsibilities to local municipalities. The Legislature is dealing with how to fund K-12 education in the state following a state Supreme Court decision to that end.

“Often times when you move down, those budget issues are magnified at the local level,” he said.

At the Monday meeting, Commissioner Edna Fund said this would have added to a list of unfunded mandates the state requires of the county. These include providing indigent legal defense for those accused of a crime and other requirements. 

These unfunded mandates are also a concern to Rethwill. 

“Where are we gonna get the money to do it? Are we going to pull it out of other county programs?” Rethwill asked. “Where’s the money gonna come from, that is the big question.”

Pressure and concerns from law enforcement around the state factored into the Senate’s decision to drop the resentencing provision from the bill. 

Other provisions in SB 5904 could reduce incarceration at local jails. 

One provision would make the fourth intoxicated driving conviction in the state a felony, meaning the offender would be housed in a state prison instead of a local jail. Current law states drivers must get a fifth DUI to face felony charges. 

Another policy would make first-time felony offender waiver programs mandatory, so any first-time felon would get a waiver, reducing jail and prison populations. 

Finally, another provision in the bill would decriminalize driving with a suspended license in the third-degree and reclassify it as a traffic infraction. 

Driving with a suspended license does not generally net much jail time, but it clogs up local courts with cases. 

The revised bill will go before the Senate on Thursday.