A prosecutor in Asotin County recently charged several teenagers accused of possessing small amounts of marijuana with felonies. People around the state were alarmed because this offense has historically been a misdemeanor, and some thought a felony charge was too harsh. It turns out there was some confusion as to whether the law in question had been changed (it hadn’t) and upon getting things straight, the prosecutor reduced the charges to misdemeanors.
The Asotin situation was an aberration, and was quickly resolved. But it highlights important broader questions. When a juvenile is caught using or sharing an illegal drug, what is the appropriate community response? Should he or she be arrested and charged with a crime, or should he or she receive public health services?
In Washington, with the exception of marijuana, possessing even trace amounts of illicit drugs is a felony for juveniles, as is any type of sharing of drugs. Perhaps even more surprisingly, state law limits the ability of prosecutors to divert many juvenile drug cases out of the criminal justice system.
An estimated 60,000 juveniles in Washington will have used an illicit substance in the last month. The social pressures of fitting in, to feel good, self-medication for other conditions (depression, anxiety), and the desire to experiment are among the many reasons for drug use. The vast majority of juveniles will never be arrested for using drugs, but for those who are the consequences can be serious.
A felony drug conviction can be a lifetime burden. Juvenile criminal records are not automatically sealed in Washington, and a drug conviction can prevent students from obtaining federal school loans or getting a job. These problems are even more profound for juveniles of color because there is racial disparity in how drug laws are enforced in Washington.
Instead of saddling juvenile offenders with a felony conviction and a criminal record, Washington should adopt alternative approaches. First, the state and communities should invest in effective prevention and treatment programs to help young people dealing with substance abuse. Second, law enforcement and prosecutors should divert juvenile drug cases out of the criminal justice system, which is both more humane and cost-effective than locking young people up.
Thanks to pioneering work that started at the University of Washington Social Development Research Group, we know that when communities come together and implement tested programs that have proven effective in preventing adolescent problem behavior, community rates of delinquency initiation drop by 25 percent. Alcohol and tobacco initiation drop by one-third. We also know that substance abuse treatment is most effective when available on demand and tailored to individual needs.
We are quick to criminalize young people for drug infractions while, at the same time, failing to offer sufficient help in the form of diversion and treatment services. It doesn’t have to be this way.
To start, lawmakers should consider enacting a policy for juvenile drug offenses similar to one passed in 2010 that requires prosecutors to divert all juveniles referred for first-time prostitution offenses. The diversion of juvenile drug offenders should be encouraged, and stated explicitly in the law. It must include clear language to guide prosecutors because, as the Asotin incident illustrates, juvenile drug laws can be confusing.
A criminal record often leads to more criminal justice involvement. We know this, and yet we’ve failed to do any better. Washington should do everything in its power to keep juveniles sober and healthy. Keeping them out of the criminal justice system whenever possible is a great place to start.
Kevin Haggerty is the director of the Social Development Research Group, School of Social Work, University of Washington.
Mark Cooke is a policy director for the ACLU of Washington’s Campaign for Smart Justice.