As fentanyl deaths skyrocket, U.S. attorney maintains tougher prosecution isn't the answer
Fentanyl overdoses continue to rise on the West Coast – and in Washington, the drug is killing more people than any drug documented in the last 30 years.
U.S. Attorney Nick Brown is the top federal law enforcement official in Western Washington. He’s charged with prosecuting drug traffickers. But as the first Black U.S. attorney in Washington’s history, Brown has been very open about the fact he thinks prosecution is not the answer and that the war on drugs is a failure.
KNKX reporter Scott Greenstone went to his office to interview him. Listen to their conversation above or read the transcript below.
Note: This transcript is provided for reference only and may contain typos. Please confirm accuracy before quoting.
Scott Greenstone (narration): I met U.S. Attorney Nick Brown at his office on Valentine’s Day. He’s wearing a pink tie. There are Valentines from his kids on his desk.
Greenstone (reading card): "Dad, you're the best. My class can't wait to go to your office."
They’ll be visiting the courthouse next month.
Nick Brown: They’re apparently excited to come.
Greenstone (narration): Someone in Brown’s position years ago might have told a class of fourth-graders, "my job is putting the bad guys in jail." But he’s been frank about how he doesn’t think that’s going to fix the problem.
Brown: It would be easier for us to go out and round up a bunch of low-level / mid-level drug dealers knowing that within a day they'll be replaced by somebody else. When we successfully target a cartel and knock off people in high level of organization (of) a cartel, that has a much larger impact on slowing it down. Someone will replace them too, but it's harder to replace that infrastructure.
But until we get serious as a state, as a country about housing, about an economy that works for everybody, about education, all these sort of foundational social structures — that's how you reduce crime, that's how you reduce drug dependency. Mental health and drug counseling are obviously huge portions of that.
Greenstone (narration): Brown’s job is to go after the people supplying drugs here and to every suburb and little town in Western Washington. But it’s ending the demand – providing treatment and support for the users – that’s going to fix the problem in his mind.
In the face of fentanyl, talk of crackdowns is popping up around the country: In the State of the Union earlier this month, President Biden talked about tougher penalties for fentanyl dealers; in the state of the city on Tuesday, Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell echoed that.
Brown has a different opinion.
Brown: Arrests and prosecution and prison is a very important and necessary tool. Part of the reason why, you know, the war on drugs in the '80s and '90s was a failure, was that we took a one size fits all approach and we went for the most significant sanction in every case, not recognizing, or recognizing and ignoring, the fact that, that is not appropriate for everyone. And so when I talk to my team, they should go into court at a sentencing hearing and advocate for the least amount that is necessary.
In many cases, we could charge mandatory minimums of 15, 20 years, depending on the facts and the person's circumstances. But that might not be necessary.
And 98% of the people I prosecute are going to get out of prison, and they're going to be back in your community. And we have to all ask ourselves, like: who do you want coming back to be your neighbor? Do you want someone who has a chance to be successful or do you want someone who has no chance?
Greenstone: We've seen a thousand— more than a thousand deaths in King County from opioids, most of those involving fentanyl, in the last year. Does it feel Sisyphean, kind of like pushing a boulder up up the hill sometimes? Being in your job?
Brown: Oh, sure. And what we're experiencing now is tragic. And a few months ago, I met with family members of fentanyl victims. And, you know — the pain and anguish that they're going through on a day to day basis, knowing that their teenagers who were either, you know, knowingly experiencing with with drugs, or took some pill that they thought was an innocent thing to do, that was laced with the lethal doses of fentanyl. … As a community we were a little slow or behind the ball in terms of recognizing the severity and significance of fentanyl.
Greenstone: If the war on drugs is a failed one, downtown Seattle – where Brown works – is a daily reminder of that lost war. Drug use is a pretty normal thing there; the mayor mentioned seeing it in his speech too. For a long time Brown commuted into downtown Seattle by bus – now kid-pick-up duty has him driving.
Today he’s walking a couple of blocks to get coffee with another attorney – the chief of the criminal division in the city attorney’s office: Natalie Walton-Anderson.
Brown works with federal agencies like the DEA, and local law enforcement like the Seattle city attorney, every day. They’re currently just keeping each other updated on ongoing cases, but they worked together last year on a few emphasis areas in Little Saigon and downtown.
On Wednesday, they got a sentence for an armed drug dealer at Third and Pike – who had two prior burglary felonies. He got five years in prison.
Other law enforcement don’t always share Brown’s philosophies on prosecution – Walton-Anderson does.
Walton-Anderson: I was born up the street. It's hard to walk around sometimes and you recognize people — I recognize a lot of people actually. Like you’re still out here?
These two prosecutors are also both Black. And one of the uncomfortable things about walking around downtown Seattle is, a disproportionate number of the people you see living outside are Black. While many homeless people don’t use drugs, fentanyl’s involved in the vast majority of homeless deaths.
Brown: So many of the violent crime cases that we deal with, the defendants are people of color. That is why I said all the things I talked about, about being as just and fair as we can, while accounting for the harm that people have caused. It's such a complicated puzzle to piece together.
It's powerful and meaningful for me to be the first Black U.S. attorney in this state's history. I'm very eager to see what the next person is like. And, you know, to sort of open the doors for the next generation.
Greenstone (narrating): As I left downtown, I kept thinking about the people most affected by prosecution, by drug policy. When we were in his office I had asked Brown how he balances his desire to call for the least amount of jail time necessary, when others are calling for the most.
Greenstone: You have these values and you bring them to your work. But you talked about meeting with victims’ families, folks whose family members have died of fentanyl overdoses. I think we all see news headlines where those families call for the most severe penalties.
Brown: You know, it is important and necessary for us to listen to those concerns. But it is not the only thing that drives our work.
And what I really love more than anything about being U.S. attorney is this job is hard. Like my brain works in different ways every day, because I'm trying to grapple with "what is justice?" and "what is fairness?" and "how do we make an impact?"
And when we go to court, you know, everybody (on my team) who steps in court on a criminal case says their name and says they're there on the behalf of the United States of America. And that means all the people in this district. And every single indictment and every single sentencing memorandum in this district has my name on it.
Greenstone: That’s U.S. Attorney Nick Brown. For KNKX, I’m Scott Greenstone, at the United States Courthouse in Seattle.