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New bureau for people with Blake-related drug convictions in Washington goes live this weekend

The Washington Supreme Court issued its "Blake" decision in 2021, which has drastically reshaped how the state handles drug possession penalties.

People with past drug convictions in Washington will have a new way to apply for reimbursements with the state starting this weekend.

Officials are rolling out an online bureau for people to get back the money they paid in court fines and fees tied to past drug convictions. It's part of the response to the state Supreme Court's "Blake" decision, which struck down Washington's felony drug possession penalties as unconstitutional in 2021.

Washington officials expect at least 300,000 past drug convictions could be vacated – the state has records of roughly 260,000 possession felonies dating back to 1971, as well as another 165,000 lower level marijuana and paraphernalia charges.

"We don't know what percentage of folks may have paid towards their legal financial obligations, but if people paid even one dollar or less than one dollar, they're entitled to have that refund," said Sharon Swanson, Blake implementation manager with the administrative office of Washington Courts.

Before a person can get a reimbursement, their convictions must already be vacated. People can check their eligibility and apply for reimbursement through the Blake Refund Bureau on the Washington Courts website starting Saturday. A hotline is available to help people begin the process.

People affected by Blake-related convictions can apply for reimbursement if they paid for third party expenses, like a lawyer. As long as they have the documentation, they can make their case to a judge who will ultimately decide whether or not those costs are eligible for reimbursement, Swanson said.

The proper documentation is also essential for anyone who is applying for reimbursement on behalf of someone else – including for people who have died or are under a legal guardianship.

Officials aim to process the reimbursements in 90 days or less, but it's a massive statewide effort, covering drug convictions going back half a century from all across the state.

"Some folks will be able to apply and will know immediately how much their refund is and so we can handle that on our end," Swanson said. "But for some folks, we may not know the amount of the refund and we will need to contact the court."

The state has set aside at least $90 million to cover the cost of processing and paying the reimbursements. For now, the state will be issuing the funds via checks, but Swanson said officials are considering additional options, like direct deposit or cash cards in the future.

Officials expect to make the website available in more languages later this year.

Jeanie Lindsay is a radio reporter based in Olympia who covers the Washington state government beat for the Northwest News Network, the Pacific Northwest's regional collaboration of NPR stations.