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Legislators need clear picture of WestNET’s drug-case results

Post by TNT Editorial Board / The News Tribune on Dec. 5, 2011 at 6:31 pm |
December 5, 2011 4:32 pm

This editorial will appear in Tuesday’s print edition.

One of Gov. Chris Gregoire’s proposed budget cuts during the current special session includes trimming the number of drug task forces in the state from 19 to 12.

She doesn’t suggest which seven should be axed, but after reading Sean Robinson’s report in Sunday’s News Tribune, we’d like to suggest a likely candidate: the West Sound Narcotics Enforcement Team – WestNET – based in Kitsap County.

The task forces, which receive both state and federal funds, are supposed to focus on big dealers and drug-trafficking networks. And while WestNET has had some successes, those were the exceptions. Robinson found that the task force spent an inordinate amount of time and resources going after small-time offenders.

Of those who were sentenced based on WestNet-related convictions, more than half received no jail time – reflecting the low level of the cases. And disturbingly, a few cases were so badly handled that the target won compensation after suing WestNET.

The task force earned a negative “cowboy” reputation for cutting legal corners among defense attorneys and prosecutors alike. Since 2007, prosecutors declined to prosecute about a fifth of WestNET’s busts because the cases were weak, sloppy, or so minor that they weren’t considered worth the trouble and expense.

Each year the task force’s performance failed to measure up to the level required for continued funding, yet the quarterly reports it was required to submit claimed otherwise. Failing to report unfinished cases and ones declined by prosecutors made WestNET’s performance look better than it really was.

The state Commerce Department, which oversees the task forces, has asked the State Patrol to look into WestNET’s reporting practices. So far the patrol says it is not investigating.

That would be a mistake. If WestNET is claiming better results than it’s entitled to, that could give it an unfair advantage over other state task forces in the event the Legislature goes along with the governor’s proposal to eliminate some of them.

Presumably performance would be one guideline for deciding which task forces to cut, and legislators should have a full and accurate accounting of WestNET’s results, not the one it has chosen to give.

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