Washington State will spend nearly $100 million to vacate an estimated 350,000 prior drug convictions and reimburse legal fees to people who were prosecuted under laws that the state Supreme Court deemed unconstitutional in 2021.
The state Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) announced on Monday that it would be launching the Blake Refund Bureau next month, facilitating the relief in coordination with “local courts, county clerks, public defenders, prosecutor, impacted individuals, advocacy groups and other stakeholders.”
The novel reimbursement fund is being created following the state Supreme Court’s landmark 2021 ruling that found the state’s criminal code for drug possession crimes was unconstitutionally flawed because it didn’t take require proof that a person “knowingly” committed the offense—creating a situation where people could be criminalized for inadvertent possession.
The ruling effectively nullified the state’s drug possession criminalization law, though the governor has since enacted a bill passed by the legislature that reinstates prohibition, with statutory language fixes to pass constitutional muster and lower penalties for possession compared to the previous law.
For the hundreds of thousands of people who were caught up in the legal system under the prior statute, however, relief is on the way.
“The intent is to have a process that is easy to navigate and will provide for a timely response for individuals to receive their refunds,” AOC Blake Implementation Manager Sharon Swanson said in a press release. “The public will be able to search for their cases by their name or case number.”
Washington officials estimate that more than 200,000 felony drug possession charges and 150,000 misdemeanor marijuana charges dating back to the 1970s may be eligible to be vacated.
Under recently enacted legislation, the state will provide $47 million in funding to facilitate a comprehensive review and vacation of hundreds of thousands of felony drug possession and misdemeanor marijuana possession records. Another $50 million will be used to reimburse eligible individuals for court-ordered fines and costs, also known as legal financial obligations (LFOs).
AOC will provide online resources for people to check the status of their case vacations and refunds, and the body will also be launching a public outreach campaign to inform people about the relief initiative.
“The Administrative Office of the Courts is dedicated to working with our justice partners to help inform the vast and diverse Blake-impacted population across Washington State about the potentially life-changing relief opportunities now available to them—collectively working to foster fresh starts and make people whole again,” Washington State Court Administrator Dawn Marie Rubio said.
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Meanwhile, there have been a number of other drug policy reform developments that have advanced in the state this session.
For example, Gov. Jay Inslee (D) signed a bill into law last month that will protect workers from facing employment discrimination during the hiring process over their lawful use of marijuana.
Inslee also approved a measure last month authorizing interstate cannabis commerce, pending a federal policy change.
He further acted on a bill on Tuesday to promote research into psilocybin and create a pilot program to provide therapeutic access to the psychedelic for mental health treatment. He signed it, with a partial veto of sections that he said “no longer align with the bill’s intent.”