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Another step forward to right the wrongs of the failed war on drugs

I wanted you to know that our city is taking another important step to right the wrongs on the failed war on drugs and to help build economic opportunity for more of our neighbors:

Today, our City filed a motion asking the Seattle Municipal Court to vacate all misdemeanor marijuana convictions in Seattle – 542 people in all.

This was really important for me. I grew up believing you have to fight for the underdog. When I was still in law school at UW, I was given a valuable opportunity to volunteer at the public defender’s office and represent clients in Seattle Municipal Court. That experience changed my life. For the next 25 years, I represented those who didn’t always get a fair shake. In that time I began to see that the system was also failing these people and their families – and their stories stuck with me.

So as an attorney and advocate here in Seattle, I worked to change state sentencing laws and offer treatment alternatives. When that was blocked, I worked with then-King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng to create a county drug court—one of the first in our country. After President Obama appointed me U.S. Attorney under then-Attorney General Eric Holder, I worked with the Federal Public Defender and the U.S. District Court to create one of the first-ever federal drug courts to battle addiction. And working with Attorney General Holder, I pushed to reform sentencing guidelines to eliminate racial disparities and end mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses. We also worked to get unjust convictions and sentences put aside.

If the system is unjust, we must work to create a more just system.

A particularly egregious example that I have had the opportunity to see firsthand is the unintended effects of the “war on drugs,” including its devastating impacts on people of color and their families here in Seattle. The war on drugs in large part became a war on people who needed opportunity and treatment. Meanwhile, we did little stem the tide of the supply of drugs, and instead incarcerated almost an entire generation of users who could have had a different future if we had a more effective means for treating people.

For too many who call Seattle a home, a misdemeanor marijuana conviction or charge created barriers to opportunity –  to good jobs, housing, loans, and education. It created a permanent criminal record that traveled with people their whole life. And it we know now that it disproportionately targeted communities of color.

In Seattle, we changed the laws – but we have fallen behind on changing the system. We may have stopped enforcing marijuana possession misdemeanors in Seattle, but those charges haven’t stopped having an impact on the lives of people in our community. Vacating charges for misdemeanor marijuana possession is a small but necessary step that we are taking to correct the injustices of this failed war on drugs.

While we cannot reverse all the harm that was done, we must do our part to give Seattle residents – including immigrants and refugees – a clean slate. Noncitizens have also been unduly burdened by these convictions, which can provide a roadblock to gaining citizenship, or in the worst case, can initiate deportation proceedings.

That’s why I recently announced our City would ask the Seattle Municipal Court to vacate convictions and dismiss charges for all convictions for misdemeanor marijuana possession. It makes little sense for so many in our communities to be punished for conduct that is no longer illegal under state law.

Since that announcement, our City has done a lot of hard work. We reviewed each and every misdemeanor conviction going back to 1997. And today, we’re asking the Court to vacate the records for 542 people.

Our system is supposed to be a system of justice, and this is an important step forward for justice for all residents of our City. I hope these actions we’re taking here in Seattle can lay the foundation for other cities, counties and state to act, too.

We have a lot of more work to do to fix our criminal justice system and address all the damage done to our communities by the war on drugs. We must provide more effective alternatives to prosecution and incarceration through drug and mental health courts, restoring rights and supporting re-entry. Our actions must go far beyond the realm of criminal justice reform; it will require us to make our City more affordable, close the opportunity gap through free community college and technical training, and to continue the hard work of building trust between our community and the Seattle Police Department.

Martin Luther King, Jr. once said that ” the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” My good friend Eric Holder said that it bends more quickly if we grab hold of it.

Today, we are grabbing hold of that arc and bending it towards justice and a brighter future for our neighbors.

– Jenny