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Originally published November 15, 2012 at 4:41 PM | Page modified November 15, 2012 at 4:41 PM

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Op-ed: Use marijuana tax revenue to improve law enforcement, courts and prisons

State and local leaders should use the money to invest in law enforcement, criminal courts and the prison system, agencies that have been starved of resources, writes guest columnist David Brody.

Special to The Times

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THE passage of Initiative 502 provides state and local governments with an opportunity to significantly improve the criminal-justice system for the next generation. A windfall of half a billion dollars in tax revenue is projected by 2015, according to the state. State and local leaders should use the money to invest in law enforcement, criminal courts and the prison system, agencies that have been starved of resources in recent years.

Let’s use this money to improve law and order in Washington state.

While 15 percent of state tax revenue generated by marijuana sales is already earmarked for substance-abuse treatment, state and local governments will gain access to many millions of dollars of discretionary funds annually.

Moreover, even before the first dollar of Initiative 502-related revenue is received, the decriminalization of marijuana possession will free the criminal-justice system from dealing with the thousands of arrests, prosecutions and incarcerations of individuals for illegal possession of marijuana.

The elimination of the approximately 10,000 such cases per year will save taxpayers several millions of dollars annually.

When law-enforcement agencies around the state were forced to absorb significant budget cuts, they drastically reduced expenditures on advanced training, leadership development and support for officer continuing education. While these cuts did not have a significant impact on public safety, they decreased the level of service and reduced the availability of well-prepared future leaders who are ready to step into command positions. State and local governments should invest in the long-term health of local law-enforcement agencies by funding specialized training, leadership-development activities and higher-education opportunities for officers, deputies and crime analysts.

Across Washington, prosecuting attorney offices, courts and indigent-defense services are woefully underfunded and understaffed. A segment of revenue generated from the sale of marijuana should be invested in these institutions.

This need is especially great for indigent-defense services. The recent adoption of the Standards for Indigent Defense and Certification of Compliance by the Washington Supreme Court established caseload limits and other standards for attorneys representing indigent defendants in criminal cases. The need for additional public defenders or contracted defense attorneys is paramount and has essentially been mandated.

Another item that should be addressed is the severe understaffing of the Community Corrections Division of the Department of Corrections. Increased staffing is needed to meet the population currently under community supervision.

Faced with ever-growing prison populations, the state has wisely considered decreasing the length of incarceration for nonviolent offenders by enhancing the use of alternative sanctions within the community. With an eye toward enhancing public safety and decreasing recidivism, it is important that sufficient funds be provided to increase community corrections staffing levels to permit the Department of Corrections to effectively supervise and support released offenders.

Finally, let’s strengthen our criminal-justice system by funding research related to the effectiveness of criminal-justice-related policies and programs. This could involves increased funding for state agencies such as the Washington State Institute for Public Policy and the Washington Center for Court Research, or the expansion of research agreements with the Washington State Institute for Criminal Justice at Washington State University or the University of Washington Alcohol & Drug Abuse Institute.

We have a unique opportunity to develop, implement and evaluate criminal-justice policies and programs using scientific, evidence-based research.

With Initiative 502, we have an opportunity to enhance public safety and quality of life short and long term. It is incumbent that state and local leaders withstand the temptation to expend this newfound revenue on reducing taxes, and to instead invest in the institutions and programs that are committed to providing public safety in a fair, just and efficient manner.

David Brody is chair of the Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology at Washington State University.

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