Senator Manka Dhingra: Addressing Law & Safety Issues with Data-Driven Best Practices

Senator Manka Dhingra: Addressing Law & Safety Issues with Data-Driven Best Practices

On today’s midweek show, Crystal welcomes Senator Manka Dhingra, Chair of the Senate Law & Justice Committee, to preview the tough issues her committee will take on in the upcoming legislative session. Senator Dhingra walks through her data-driven and community-informed approach to legislating and how this lens guides her thinking on revisiting the Blake decision fix, a temporary solution put in place by the Legislature in 2021 when the Washington Supreme Court struck down the state’s drug possession law as unconstitutional. Despite widespread recognition of the need for a public health approach to substance use disorder, Crystal and Senator Dhingra lament the unfortunate political truth that the public is often ahead of elected officials and that the Blake fix will likely not be based on best practices.

The two then discuss the pushback from some in law enforcement interests in response to bills that restricted their use of high-speed vehicle pursuits and sought to hold officers liable for taking wrong actions. Senator Dhingra stands by these policies that solve the issues of unnecessary bystander deaths and community demands for reduction in police violence. Finally, the show wraps up with what a trauma-informed criminal justice system could look like, where implementation of the 988 crisis system is, and Senator Dhingra’s delightful tradition of introducing legislation from teenagers in her district.

About the Guest

Senator Manka Dhingra

Manka Dhingra is Deputy Majority Leader of the Washington State Senate. She brings two decades of experience as a prosecutor to her role as Chair of the Senate Law & Justice Committee. She also serves on the Senate Health & Long Term Care Committee and Senate Ways & Means Committee.

In November 2017, Dhingra was elected to the Senate by the constituents of the 45th Legislative District, the first Sikh legislator in the nation. Since then, she has sponsored and passed legislation addressing a wide range of issue areas, including: curbing domestic violence and sexual assault, preventing firearm violence, providing property tax relief for seniors and people with disabilities, prosecuting financial fraud, and reforming the criminal justice system with an evidence-based approach.

During her time in the Senate, Dhingra has helped pass legislation and funding to transform the Washington State behavioral health system, reorienting it around prevention rather than crisis response. She continues to strive to ensure that Washingtonians with behavioral health needs get the treatment they need and deserve.

As a member of the Special Committee on Economic Recovery, she is helping the state craft an economic plan to lead an equitable recovery from the COVID economic downturn. She also serves on several task forces dedicated to reducing poverty, reforming the criminal justice system, improving equity in state government, and providing a sound and fair fiscal footing for the state.

Dhingra continues to serve as a Senior Deputy Prosecuting Attorney with the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. As Chair of the Therapeutic Alternative Unit, Manka helped develop and oversee the Regional Mental Health Court, the Veterans Court, and the Community Assessment and Referral for Diversion program. As a mental health and crisis intervention expert, she has also been an instructor at the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission for the 40-hour Crisis Intervention Training for law enforcement officers to reduce the risk of tragedy and improve the response to people in crisis.

Outside the courtroom, Dhingra is a community leader and anti-domestic violence advocate on the Eastside. She co-founded Chaya, an organization that assists South Asian survivors of domestic violence and led the organization’s work to end systemic violence through education and prevention. She also serves on the board of Hopelink.

Find Senator Manka Dhingra on Twitter/X at @Dhingrama.


Senator Manka Dhingra | Washington Senate Democrats

With Dhingra’s Win, Democrats Take Control of the State Senate” by Hayat Norimine from SeattleMet

Q & A: The Blake Decision | ACLU of Washington

In Last-Minute Move, Legislature Adopts New Approach to Drug Possession” by Paul Kiefer from PubliCola

WA lawmakers try to thread needle on drug possession, to mixed reviews” by David Kroman from Crosscut

Washington Voters Want to Decriminalize Drug Possession and Fund Substance Abuse Resources” by Anika Dandekar with Data For Progress

State v. Blake: ESB 5476 and behavioral health expansion | Washington Health Care Authority

Not all crimes merit high-speed chases that risk bystanders’ lives” by Manka Dhingra in The Seattle Times

Pursuits and Fatalities in WA since 2015” by Martina Morris from Next Steps Washington and Washington Coalition for Police Accountability

2021-2022 Washington State Legislature Policing Bills Explainer | People Power Washington

State leaders prepare for implementation of the 988 call line” by Shane Ersland from State of Reform

Meet the students who fought for free menstrual products at Washington schools — and won” by Sara Gentzler from The Olympian


[00:00:00] Crystal Fincher: Welcome to Hacks & Wonks. I'm Crystal Fincher, and I'm a political consultant and your host. On this show, we talk with policy wonks and political hacks to gather insight into local politics and policy in Washington State through the lens of those doing the work with behind-the-scenes perspectives on what's happening, why it's happening, and what you can do about it. Full transcripts and resources referenced in the show are always available at and in our episode notes.

So today I'm absolutely thrilled to have joining us the Deputy Majority Leader of the Washington State Senate, Manka Dhingra. Welcome.

[00:00:47] Senator Manka Dhingra: Thank you so much. It is such a pleasure to be here with you.

[00:00:50] Crystal Fincher: Absolutely a pleasure to have you - have followed your work and admired your work for quite some time. So you are also the Chair of the Senate Law & Justice Committee, you've done a lot of work. I just wanted to start off with - what was your path to the State Senate and what have you been working on?

[00:01:11] Senator Manka Dhingra: So I'll just say my path to the State Senate has been extremely unusual. I don't know anyone else who came into politics the way I did. I, as a young person, knew very early that I wanted to go to law school and that I wanted to be a prosecutor. I got involved in gender-based violence early on because my grandmother used to help survivors of domestic violence back in India. And so I went to law school, became a prosecutor with King County. I actually created and ran the first ever Therapeutic Alternative Unit where we really took a look at alternatives to incarceration, crisis intervention. I helped train law enforcement in the 40-hour crisis intervention training at the Criminal Justice Training Center. And I considered myself a good Democrat because I voted.

And then we had our 2016 national election. And for the first time in my life, I was actually having an Election Night party at my house because I really wanted my children to see the face of the first U.S. woman president. Clearly the night did not go as I had planned. And so I went to my first Democratic Party meeting that December. And when I went there, I can tell you that the room was full - packed - with women. When I looked around that room, I recognized so many of the PTSA moms. And most of us were there, again, for the very first time because we felt we had to do something. And I didn't know what that something would look like. And a very good friend of mine who was on city council saw me there and she said, We have to have coffee. And so we sat down for coffee and her first question was, Do you want to run for office? And my response was, I don't think I'm qualified. And she literally fell off her chair laughing. And later I realized what a cliché my response was because apparently that's what all of us women say - we think we're not qualified. So she kind of worked on me and we had a Senate seat that was available. And February 14th, I announced I was running for the Senate. So my entire political engagement from the time from my first meeting to me announcing for Senate was two months.

[00:03:25] Crystal Fincher: Wow. Well, and then you ran in a district where your victory was certainly not guaranteed - very competitive race - where you were successful and victorious and a first yourself, the first Sikh member of our state Senate. How did you use all of your lived experience in the Senate and how was your first term?

[00:03:56] Senator Manka Dhingra: So the election was exciting because my seat actually flipped our State Senate. So our Senate was controlled by the Republicans and when I won, Democrats got in control. So the first session was actually pure chaos because we'd had gridlock in Olympia for so many years because we really couldn't pass meaningful bills. We had a session that would go into special session year after year because budgets couldn't be agreed upon. The year I was running, there were three special sessions and they still did not have all their budgets passed. And so when I won, normally people have orientation or some kind of onboarding. But when I won - because of the change - we had new Chairs, all this legislation that had been blocked for so many years like the flood gates had opened. So it was a very exciting time because I think we just passed such amazing progressive legislation and really were this beacon of light for the entire country on what a progressive legislation could look like or what a progressive state can look like. But I got to tell you, I was kind of lost in the mix there. But luckily I was able to hold my own and was very proud of the nine bills I passed my first session.

[00:05:16] Crystal Fincher: And what were some of those bills?

[00:05:17] Senator Manka Dhingra: So a lot of those bills were things that had really irked me for a very long time as an attorney and as a prosecutor. So there were a lot of bills around helping survivors of domestic violence, there were bills around sexual assault, around trafficking, and I had a Medicaid fraud unit bill, work around behavior health because I have been very concerned about mental illness and substance use disorder in our state. And normally when you're a first-time legislator, they do this thing on the Senate floor where your first bill - people actually kind of tease you a little about it or kind of give you a hard time. And when they looked at all my bills, they were all of such serious matters that they couldn't figure out which one should be my first bill. And so actually the Medicaid fraud unit was my first bill because that was the least serious about my other bills. But this was legislation that I knew that had to be fixed and we needed to do it. And frankly, I think the reason why I was so successful is because most of my bill ideas come from people who do the work and are able to really articulate what the problems are and then have the solutions because they're the experts in that field. And so I have maintained that manner of doing my work - is really making sure I hear from the people on the ground doing the work.

[00:06:42] Crystal Fincher: And you have built that reputation of being very in touch with the community, of reaching out to stakeholders for your various bills, making sure that you speak with, inform, get feedback from people who are involved with and impacted by legislation you're proposing and the issues you're trying to address. One such issue was spurred by the Blake decision - that the Supreme Court found in our state - that essentially decriminalized personal use possession. And because of some challenges that that presented, like a potential patchwork of different laws passed by different cities all throughout the state, the Legislature decided to take action to try and pass one uniform policy all across the state. What was your approach to that and where did that end up?

[00:07:30] Senator Manka Dhingra: Thank you. That is really the issue and the question that has been - people have been interested in for the last two years. Any time legislation is required, my question always is why? And what you gave in your question was really one of the reasons why we knew that legislation - is because we wanted a uniform way of making sure enforcement is the same for people, that they're not treated differently because they're using at a different intersection down the street. So that's why we wanted to make sure we had state legislation. This decision came out in the middle of session, so the timing was not optimal.

And then it was very important to me to have a solution that is based on best practices and that is practical. So the original bill that I had was actually based on what the policy of the King County Prosecuting Attorney's Office was, along with a lot of the other prosecuting attorney's offices around the state. Because what we found at that time is - a lot of people doing this work had realized - that dealing with substance use disorder, it's not a criminal justice issue, it's a public health issue. And treating it like a criminal justice issue is what has really led us to where we are today. But you have to make sure you're focused on getting people into the treatment that they need. And so I was really trying to come up with a solution that said you have to have public health lead. And you also have to understand that while using the substance shouldn't be illegal, if there's criminal activity around that - like theft, criminal trespass, possession of weapons - that is still a criminal offense, but really being able to focus on treatment. So after a lot of negotiations, because I'll tell you, elected officials are very nervous of criminal justice issues. And I come from it differently because I practiced for 17 years. And we unfortunately did not get a bill that was based on best practices. We came close, but not quite.

So what became the law of the land is that law enforcement was going to offer diversion the first two times that they came into contact with an individual. And then only after that would they refer that for a criminal case. And we took this opportunity to really provide a lot of resources for treatment - so we ensured that we had substance use disorder navigators who can help get people into treatment, we provided funding for treatment like Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, to wraparound teams like HOST - Homeless Outreach Stabilization Teams, PACT - these assertive community treatment models. So really making sure that those resources go hand-in-hand, because if people have no place to go and they don't have treatment, nothing's going to really work.

I also wanted to make sure that because we were creating this in the middle of session, that we had an expiration date. So I insisted that this law expire in three years. And we created a committee or task force made up of a wide variety of individuals - people with lived experience, people in the treatment community, housing people, law enforcement, prosecutors, defense - everyone who deals with this issue to come together to come up with recommendations. So those recommendations have officially been made. And our law expires this 2023, so we as the Legislature have to actually pass another substance use disorder law to make sure that we're, again, pushing ourselves to doing things that are based on - with best practices.

[00:11:16] Crystal Fincher: Now the bill did not end up - at that time what passed - was not what you were ultimately happy with and didn't earn your vote at that time. But you did say that - because of some of those things that were funded, you really wanted to focus on getting those implemented and working across the state, because it's important to - if someone is going to make a referral for treatment or for services, that those services be available. And we were in a situation where those were not available in sufficient quantities around the state and people may not have been able to get their needs met. Where do those stand today? How far have we made it in terms of implementation and availability of services?

[00:12:02] Senator Manka Dhingra: So I'll just say - on paper - the funding, the availability of services looked amazing. And then COVID hit. And one of the biggest barriers became COVID, because we weren't really able to implement everything that we wanted to. We had inpatient treatment services that had to be dramatically reduced because of social distancing - they had to limit their bed capacity. And so it's very challenging to talk about how successful or not successful this program could have been because it was greatly hampered by COVID. And we know from years and years of data and just knowing how humans behave - that when there is a huge incident like COVID - people do tend to self-medicate because of anxiety and depression. And we saw that. We saw use of alcohol and drugs go up exponentially because people were dealing with trauma. And so the combination of factors made it a lot more challenging. And so the resources weren't able to be deployed as timely as we would have liked. Now we're in a position - with this summer, we were able to do statewide deployment of the substance use navigators, so now they're around. We have funded a lot more options for law enforcement assisted diversions. So we have this program set up, but unfortunately we also had a lot of inpatient treatments that actually closed - because of COVID and their not being sustainable.

The other issue also became is - there are a lot of individuals who really feel that there has to be an option for court-directed treatment - the court has to force you to do treatment. And so one of the things we had talked about is - if you want the option of that, you still have that through Drug Court, Mental Health Court, Veterans Court - if people engage in other criminal activity in addition to substance use disorder. We also have a civil commitment statute - we have Involuntary Treatment Act - we have assisted treatment where if you really want it to be court-ordered, you can do it through the civil system. And so we were really hoping to ramp up our civil system to do that. And again, due to COVID and what happened with our judicial system, we weren't really able to get there.

So I would say where we are now from when the bill was passed - not as far along as we would have liked. And we simply haven't had the time to give these programs the setup that they actually needed. So in an ideal situation, I would have liked to see one more year of us working under this bill to really see what's working and what's not, and then come up with a different solution. But unfortunately we don't have that time and COVID did make things more challenging in terms of implementation.

[00:15:00] Crystal Fincher: So in terms of these programs and what was funded and addressing the capacity and now increased staffing issues with a lot of these services, is there going to be a push for increased funding? Does the existing funding already cover the implementation? What action needs to be taken from the legislature to ensure that in another year's time we are where we do want to be?

[00:15:24] Senator Manka Dhingra: So absolutely the funding needs to continue and it will. The cities and the counties that do have the programs up and running - because it was a gradual start - have actually shown really positive results. We are seeing individuals getting the help they need. We have had law enforcement in those areas actually appreciate the resources that have been provided to the community to do this work. We also have to take a look at - how do we staff inpatient units? The way we pay them for per bed usage doesn't really work when you have pandemics because a third of the beds can't be used. So if you're only paying them for the beds, they can't do full staffing if they're not allowed to use a third of their beds. So we really have to rethink what that payment for treatment looks like. And there've been some really interesting ideas on integration, and paying for the whole person, and paying for programs rather than for each beds. And that's what COVID really taught us - being really creative on how we are supporting some of our community clinics, so I think you're going to see some really exciting stuff coming in on more integrated community-led efforts. Our federal government, in the last two years under President Biden, has really made a lot of federal dollars available for us to do this work. And Washington is really set up very well to take advantage of these federal dollars. I think it's still an exciting time and - it always gets darkest before the light, but I do think we are going to be turning the corner on the opioid epidemic.

[00:17:06] Crystal Fincher: I hope so. And so now you're going to be taking up this legislation again - you're forced to - and many people were supportive of the sunset and revisiting of this legislation this session. It looks like there, once again, is a mixed variety of opinions on the right way forward this session. And it looks like there are a growing amount of people, supported by what looks like changing public sentiment, or absolutely a number of polls in support of a public health approach as opposed to a criminalized approach to substance use disorder and possession of personal amounts. Is there the opportunity this session to move towards a full public health approach and move away from criminalization of personal possession of substances?

[00:17:59] Senator Manka Dhingra: I wish I could tell you there was. This is unfortunately the truth in politics that I've learned - is that normally the public is way ahead of elected officials. Over and over again, I've heard from the public that when they see their loved one, their neighbor, their friend, or even the stranger struggling with substance use disorder, they want treatment. The first response isn't to send someone to prison. And so the recommendation out of this committee - it's actually called SURSAC [Substance Use Recovery Services Advisory Committee] - was for decriminalization of personal use. And so the bill that I will be sponsoring is based on the committee's recommendation, because I think it's really important to honor that work. That work and their conclusions are based on best practices, it's data driven through looking at what has worked around the world - not just in the United States - because we know this is a worldwide problem. We don't have the votes for that in the Senate or in the House. So I'll have my bill, which is based on best practices and data. We are going to have another bill by Senator Robinson, who is going to take a lot of the treatment recommendations coming out of that group, but it does make possession of personal use a gross misdemeanor. It encourages diversion, but that's where it's at. We're going to have other individuals who may want to make it back as a felony - I don't think there's appetite at all to have it be a felony because that has failed so miserably. And I know there's some interest in making it a misdemeanor. All of those have issues, right? No one is going to agree on one version of it, but I think the best decisions are always the decisions that are made when they're data-driven. I don't think our legislature is there. I don't think the Blake fix is going to be evidence-based or data-driven. It will criminalize personal drug use with a lot of options for diversion. And the hope really is that the prosecutors, the judges are in a position to make those referrals. The hope really is that community resources come in and are able to help people outside of the criminal justice system. I'm a little disappointed, but that's human nature. All you can do is continue to make the case on trying to do things that work.

[00:20:40] Crystal Fincher: Absolutely.

[00:20:41] Senator Manka Dhingra: But people are driven by fear.

[00:20:43] Crystal Fincher: Yeah. And appreciate your continued work to continue to make the case and for standing by that when it comes to voting. Is there the opportunity with this to implement another sunset - for as you said, as we get more infrastructure set up around the state, accounting for the COVID delays and challenges, that maybe we get to revisit this in another couple of years?

[00:21:08] Senator Manka Dhingra: You know, I'm not sure about that - we'll have to see how it works. The reality is you can have whatever laws you want - it depends on what implementation looks like. So when the Blake decision came out, the current individuals who were charged with drug possession cases - all those cases had to be dismissed. And if they were in custody, they had to be released. Now, I was very curious to know how many of those individuals currently existed, because I had heard and know that most of these cases weren't being prosecuted - that they were actually being deferred. And that was actually true. People thought the Drug Courts would close - they didn't. There were very few Drug Courts that actually had individuals that were only there for drug possession cases, because the culture of enforcement has changed so much. Because the people that do that work know that having someone go through the court system or look at incarceration does not improve the substance use disorder. It actually makes it worse. And so practically, there were not people in Drug Court to any significant degree when this decision came out. And that's why I tried to tell people - that there was already that recognition in our criminal justice system that said, We're not prosecuting these individuals, they're being offered diversions at the time of booking. Or they end up pleading guilty to a reduced sentence and finish that time in jail and leave. So there is a disconnect between the laws on our book and what is being implemented. And I think all we can do is actually make that community treatment program really robust and provide those resources, and destigmatize substance use disorder so that people can actually feel comfortable going for treatment and acknowledging that they have a problem.

[00:22:56] Crystal Fincher: That makes sense. Another issue that has been an issue that has been talked about throughout the community has been those surrounding police pursuits. High speed vehicle chases - I suppose some may not be at high speeds - but pursuing people who they suspect of fleeing because of some crime or being wanted for a reason. And lots of talk in the community and data and evidence about the injuries and deaths caused by police pursuits - and really weighing whether the risk of pursuit is worth it in cases where someone is not wanted for a violent crime and people's health and wellbeing seem to be in immediate jeopardy, as opposed to a property crime or something else like that. What is the work that you've done on that? And do you anticipate that being an issue? Where do you stand on that?

[00:23:53] Senator Manka Dhingra: I go back to the way I deal with legislation - I start off with what is the problem you're trying to solve? So when it came to police pursuits, the question was - what is the problem we're trying to solve? And the problem we were trying to solve is data that came out that said 50% of the people that are killed during police chases are individuals that have nothing to do with the incident. These are innocent bystanders who get killed. And that number is at 50% in the state. That is an unacceptable number. So we took a look and said, OK, how can we reduce that number? And so the police pursuit bill that was passed by the Senate and the House and signed into law is one that's actually based in best practices. It was based on a policy that very closely mirrored what a lot of our cities were already doing. So we do have some cities that had very similar policies and others that frankly were not good partners in doing this work. And so we passed that. There were a few cities who didn't really have to change their policies because that is what their official policy was. And there were others that were forced to change their policy. And this is exactly what you mentioned, Crystal - it is about doing that analysis. We made sure that if it's a domestic violence case, you can pursue the vehicle. If it's a case involving violence, you can pursue the vehicle. If it's a DUI, you can pursue the vehicle. But when it comes to property, we said, No, you can't - because there are other ways to catch an individual in today's day and age. And guess what? We haven't had innocent people dying since this policy was enacted. So did we solve the problem of not having 50% of the fatalities be uninvolved? We absolutely did. We do not have innocent people dying in vehicle pursuits.

And I've heard criticism that, Oh, people are just fleeing and not getting caught. And I've asked the question, Are they not getting caught in that instant? Are they getting arrested the next day or a few days later? Guess what? They're being arrested, they're just arrested a few days later. And now they're being charged with a felony - attempting to elude - because they fled. So I know that there are cities and law enforcement agencies that want us to go back on our vehicle pursuit bill. And I have asked them for data - because I do tend to be data-driven - and I've said, Show me how many people have not been caught because of this data. The only data they can show me is the number of pursuits is up. And I'm like, And what happens the day after? Because when they share the stories with me, they always end with, Oh, yes, and we caught the guy two days later or the next day. And so again, I think for those who want us to change our policy, I come back with what is the problem you're trying to solve and where is the data supporting that? And I have not seen the data that tells me that this is the wrong policy.

[00:26:53] Crystal Fincher: Well, and I appreciate the approach you take in being very data-driven because really - there's a lot of conflicting information out there. There's a lot of people who sometimes are scared just by change. And so looking at what the situation actually is based on evidence makes a lot of sense. This was an issue with a number of bills around public safety in prior sessions where there - in 2020 - where a number of accountability bills passed. And then following that, some seeming cold feet amid pushback from some law enforcement officials and others saying, Well, you have prevented us from being able to do our jobs and you're putting public safety at risk by holding us more accountable. What was your take on that, and on some of the legislation that rolled back some of the accountability progress that was made?

[00:27:53] Senator Manka Dhingra: When people started saying - Oh, the Legislature prevented us from doing our work, my question was - No, we made sure you can be held liable for taking wrong actions. If they choose not to act because they're afraid of liability, that is not the Legislature preventing them from doing their job. It's that they have to relearn how to do their job. Or go back to best practices that they were taught - but over time, those practices have kind of gone away because you just kind of start doing what everyone else does and not really focus on best practices.

And the bottom line is this. We had to do all of that work because of George Floyd. And the years and years and years of Black people telling us that they're being killed at the hands of law enforcement and frankly, the world not listening - until we had COVID, was stuck in our house, didn't have any new Hollywood movies coming out or new TV shows coming out - and we had to watch the video that was captured. And finally acknowledge and say, Yes, what people have been saying is true and real. We, as elected officials, have to do something about it. So it comes down to, again, what is the problem that we were trying to solve? And the problem is that Black and Brown men and women are treated unfairly with law enforcement. And when you see that so blatantly and so starkly that you cannot make excuses for it anymore, like we have been for decades, you have to do something and you cannot do business as usual. There has to be accountability. And like you said, change is hard. People don't like making change. But unless they do it themselves, it is thrusted upon them and that is - the job of electeds and the Legislature is to make sure we are standing up for each and every human being. I represent cities like Duvall and Woodinville, Redmond, Kirkland - each and every one of these cities had a Black Lives Matter protest - down in Duvall, Woodinville, Redmond, Kirkland. I was there at all of them. This is something that our population demanded and the Legislature provided. And it's going to take a while for people to make the changes, but these are changes that are needed. We are an outlier in the United States when it comes to fatalities at the hand of law enforcement. No other country has that rate like the US does. And it's time we took it seriously and put in practices that are going to prevent it.

[00:30:46] Crystal Fincher: Agreed. And as you talked about before, lots of times the public is more in tune with data and reality - because they're living it - than some of the elected officials. We just saw in these past elections in November where we had a county prosecutor race where people with two very different views were running. One focused on more punitive punishment measures, focused a lot on criminalization and focusing on that. Another one who's saying, Okay, we're not going to not follow the law, but we need to follow the evidence and start to pursue policies, or continue the path of pursuing policies like diversion that have been shown to be more successful in helping people get on a productive path to not commit any more crimes and to reduce the amount of people who are victimized. As you continue through this path of various legislation in this session, what is your message to people who do say that police accountability gets in the way of public safety?

[00:31:54] Senator Manka Dhingra: And I just say that is absolutely not true. Holding someone responsible for bad actions has nothing to do with public safety. Public safety is about your perception of safety. You can talk about domestic violence and I can tell you, and I'm going to say mostly women - because we are talking mostly women who are victims or survivors - they have not felt safe in their house for decades. And people will not say that that is a public safety issue because they're thinking about what happens when they walk down the street, not what is happening in their own home. When we talk about sexual assault, it's a different concept of public safety. When we talk about trafficking, it's different. And so we have to - when we talk about public safety, it's not about property crimes. It's about individuals feeling safe - at home, in their school, or out in the street. And so we have to be focused on human safety and them feeling safe in whatever environment they're in. Right now when people talk about public safety, they're only talking about car thefts, and thefts from businesses, and graffiti, and seeing people using drugs on the street - that's not public safety. Those all tend to be public health issues and systems that aren't funded appropriately. And frankly, the systemic racism that has occurred in this country for generations that has allowed these wealth inequities.

So we have to talk about public safety as the human feeling safe. And I can tell you - it is women, women of color who are most at risk of being victims of public safety, but we don't talk about that. I do. And that is how I frame these issues is - we have done a terrible job when it comes to investigating, reporting, prosecuting sexual assault. Same thing about domestic violence, same thing about trafficking. And when you take a look at the ills in our society, it comes down to gender-based violence. It comes down to our children being raised in households where they see domestic violence, the trauma that occurs through there. So public safety is a lot more complicated than seeing there's a rise in their concerns about public safety - because when you really take a look at the holistic concept of public safety, there isn't. And I'll just say for decades, crime in our country has been reducing. Then the last three years, because of the pandemic, you've seen a rise in violence and a rise in crimes, but overall, when you take a look at trend over decades, we are at a downward trend. It is still the best time to live in America right now than it ever has been. That is actually true. Technology is there to help us, we have more access to resources, there are more people being fed, and there are more people who are actually safe. So let's try to change that conversation on public safety because the sound bites are not based in reality.

[00:34:55] Crystal Fincher: They really aren't. And it looks like by these - once again - most recent election results, the public recognizes that and wants to move towards more evidence-based solutions. I also want to talk about - you talk about who are most often victims of crime. And when we talk about victims, so often it's in the context of, Well, victims would want this person punished. And what are you going to say to the victims if this person doesn't spend a whole bunch of time in jail? But it seems like we engage less on - how do we actually best support victims? How do we do that? And how can we do better?

[00:35:32] Senator Manka Dhingra: That is such a great question. Thank you so much for framing it the way you just did because that's absolutely true. People - because of TV shows - mostly have this image of this victim who's like this innocent, fragile, vulnerable person who has never done anything wrong in her life. That is not who the victim is. Victims are as complicated as any single human being. And many times when you take a look at a victim of crime, especially in our society, they're not strangers. You normally know the perpetrator of violence, and there's that connection. And so when you talk about what the victim wants, it isn't necessarily punishment or prison time for 20 years. It is much more nuanced and much more complicated. As I mentioned, I used to run the Therapeutic Alternative Unit, and we really used to make sure - we were the first in the country, actually, to not have any criminal history that's a bar to participate in this program. But I insisted that part of this program, we have a victim advocate. And that when there were crimes involving victims, that the victim's voice would be part of what the resolution is. And I cannot tell you - over and over again, when you provided victims the resources and the services and you explained the program, they wanted that defendant to go through that program. Because they want that person to get better, they want to make sure that what happened to them doesn't happen to anyone else. And when the victim feels supported and has resources on their own, they can actually deal with their own trauma and move on - because no one wants to hold on to that hurt and that anger. It is not good for anybody. But unless we as a society can provide those resources and that support, the victims aren't going to get better. And when they don't, you just have that cycle over and over again.

And one of the bills that I'm really proud of - I passed a couple of years ago - and it was about making sure that if you are a survivor of domestic violence, sexual assault or trafficking, when you are on your path to recovery, you can get your criminal history, your convictions expunged. And the reason I really wanted that bill is because - trauma exerts itself as a reaction, not just as a memory. And so there are so many people in the criminal justice system who are survivors - they're survivors of violence. And they're engaging in the criminal justice system because of that trauma. And we don't have a criminal justice system that is trauma-informed. We're trying to get there. But being trauma-informed means you have to understand that anyone coming into that system may and most probably has suffered trauma. And unless you deal with that underlying trauma, you're going to continue on that cycle. So I think there's a lot more work we need to do in being trauma-informed throughout our criminal justice system.

[00:38:31] Crystal Fincher: Well, I appreciate that and appreciate your work. And also, your work on the 988 system. Can you explain what that is and where that stands in terms of implementation?

[00:38:43] Senator Manka Dhingra: Absolutely - you're asking about my favorite bills. I've been working with the mental health community for a very long time in my other job as a Senior Deputy Prosecuting Attorney. And one of the things people have wanted for a very, very long time is a mental health crisis line. Because it's not illegal to be mentally ill, yet we call 911 and have law enforcement show up. And so 988 is a national number that went live in July. And we took this opportunity in the state of Washington to create an entire crisis system around 988. So right now, if anyone who needs help - if they're suicidal or in crisis, that's a mental health substance use disorder crisis - they can call 988. The 988 phone number is actually staffed by mental health professionals - individuals who are trained in how to deescalate and help with situations. And so we made sure that we provided funding for the people responding to the calls - that they had the credentials needed to do this work. We made sure that these hubs of 988 are actually going to - in the next few years, they are going to have a mobile response team that is made up of community mental health professionals along with peers. We are connecting 911 and 988 in the sense that there's cross-training - because a lot of the calls that come to 911 are actually mental health calls. So we want them to be able to transfer those calls through 988. And there may be times when a call comes into 988, but there's a weapon involved or a gun involved, and they need that help from 911. So we're working on cross-training and some kind of cross-mobilization.

But what we have found is - from other states that have done some of this work - is that when you have a mental health professional answering these calls, 90% of the calls are able to be resolved. The 10% that need someone to show up for them - 7% can be handled with a mental health professional going out along with a peer, and only 3% need law enforcement. And so being a lot smarter about how we are responding to people in crisis - because they don't need to go to jail, most of them don't even need to go to an emergency room. We also took this opportunity to set up a structure where we can have more technology and data. We would love to do a bed tracking system, so someone who needs help - the 988 operator can take a look and know that there is a bed available for them, that they can connect them to treatment. Come January, our state mandates next-day appointments. So if you call the crisis line, your insurance or Medicaid - whatever it can be - is mandated that the next day you are going to go see somebody. And that's going to be a game changer because you're making sure people get the treatment they need when they need it.

So I am super excited about this system. More work to be done on it, but we are well on our path to do it. We - normally, in the state of Washington, while we can be proud of so much, we are not the state that is in the top 10 for mental health services, but our 988 bill is the national model in the country. And I have to say, I was very proud - with Representative Orwall who sponsored the bill, and I - both of us got an award, actually a national award, recognizing us for our 988 bill. So very, very exciting time and so much more to come on this.

[00:42:20] Crystal Fincher: Excellent. And what do you say to people who are concerned that - who are trying to avoid a situation that may be escalated, especially with some of the challenges that law enforcement have in responding to and deescalation, deescalating situations - whether it's people of color, or disabled people, or people in crisis - that calling 988 could result in a law enforcement response or an involuntary confinement for behavioral health treatment.

[00:42:53] Senator Manka Dhingra: When I said the numbers on the percentage of calls and the manner in which they're dealt with, what you find is when you have the right resources right at the beginning, you don't need law enforcement, you don't need civil commitment because you are able to, again, use your motivational interviewing skills. You're able to offer people services and support. That next-day appointment is critical. Because if they're willing to go see someone - a doctor, a nurse, a mental health specialist, whoever that person may be - they don't need to be involuntary treatment, ITA'ed as they call it, because they're going in for treatment. So you have to make early intervention options available as much as possible. There are always those individuals who may need a high level of care, so you have to make sure that you are able to meet them wherever they are - but you got to make sure you're providing early intervention. I will have a bill next session that actually sets up these facilities called 23-hour facilities. And so the hope really is that those individuals who can't wait for the next-day appointment, that we are actually able to take them to these 23-hour facilities where the hope really is that they're there for 23 hours - because they can't stay there longer than that - and then you have to have a transition plan on how you're going to get them connected to other services and support. And that's what we have found is that - the right intervention at the right time - really, people want help, that's why they're calling. They're not calling because they actually want to kill themselves. It's because they're like, Help me, I'm afraid I'm going to do this. And so you have to provide the help that they're asking for.

[00:44:31] Crystal Fincher: Much appreciated. I appreciate you taking the time to go through all of this with us today. As we close, I wanted to talk about one of my favorite things that you, or any legislator does - and that is working with youth. How do you do that? And what were you able to accomplish?

[00:44:49] Senator Manka Dhingra: I love working with our youth. When I first ran for office five years ago - at that time, my kids were 13 and 15. And I used to coach Destination Imagination, and Math Team, and a lot of teams. And so I had to tell them that, Hey, I'm going to run for office, so I'm going to have to step aside from coaching these teams. And the teens were like, Can we help? And I'm like, Yes. So I had 250 teenagers helping me on my first and second campaign - no one had heard, seen so many teenagers working on a campaign. And so my promise to them was - I will continue engaging with them. So I sponsor bills that have been brought to me by teens every year for the last five years.

And my favorite bill for next session is going to be one - is one - that's been brought to me by teens in my district. And that's around eliminating gender-based pricing. They literally went to Target and Costco and took pictures of a bike helmet that's pink in color and the exact same helmet - same company, same everything - that's blue in color. And the blue helmet is for $20 and the pink helmet is for $25. And they even did that with adult diapers. I didn't know this, but apparently women's adult diapers are much more expensive than men adult diapers - no clue why. So I'm going to have that bill next session - I'm super excited about it. But these teens are the ones that made sure we now have menstrual products in all our schools and college bathrooms. We no longer, in Washington, pay taxes on menstrual products. And it's not just this stuff they care about - they care about access to mental health treatment and services, and substance use disorder, and criminal justice reform. You name it, and these teens want to make positive changes. And I cannot tell you how excited I feel looking at the next generation.

[00:46:44] Crystal Fincher: Absolutely. And this isn't even the first bill that they've brought to you. In fact, we have better access to menstrual products because of youth bringing up legislation, correct?

[00:46:54] Senator Manka Dhingra: Absolutely. They really want to make sure that they can change the world. And that bill came about because of a conversation I was having with some of the teens. And the teens in the Redmond High School said they have menstrual products in their school. And I knew that teens in Kent and Moses Lake did not. And they started talking about how that's just not fair - that our school districts in more affluent communities are actually providing menstrual products than schools that are not in affluent areas. And guess who needs it more? And so just the fact that these teens think about access - and think about who is getting services and resources and who isn't - is just heartwarming for me. And the fact that they're willing to fight for others. So yes, all schools in Washington and colleges provide menstrual products in bathrooms now.

[00:47:51] Crystal Fincher: Absolutely. And if people want to learn more about the work that you're doing or support legislation that you have, what's the best way for them to get engaged?

[00:48:00] Senator Manka Dhingra: The best way is to email my office, or get a hold of me on social media, and subscribe to my newsletter. If anyone is interested in any particular bill or issue, my office can help you get connected to how to get more information. But check out our website, - they have a lot of resources on how you can follow a bill, how you can sign up to testify. Our hearings are all hybrid, so you can testify on an issue from the comfort of your home or your car - as long as you're not driving. And if you don't want to testify, you can send in written testimony or simply show your support for a bill or opposition to a bill - and all of that gets counted. And democracy is not an individual sport - it is a team sport. You got to play and you got to be part of a team - and that's the only way we make our world better.

[00:48:56] Crystal Fincher: Well, thank you so much today, Senator Manka Dhingra, for joining us and for sharing all of the work that you're doing.

[00:49:02] Senator Manka Dhingra: Thank you so much. This was a great conversation and I loved absolutely chatting about these tough issues with you.

[00:49:09] Crystal Fincher: Well, thank you and we will stay in touch.

Thank you all for listening to Hacks & Wonks. The producer of Hacks & Wonks is Lisl Stadler. Our assistant producer is Shannon Cheng, and our Post-Production Assistant is Bryce Cannatelli. You can find Hacks & Wonks on Twitter @HacksWonks, and you can follow me @finchfrii, spelled F-I-N-C-H-F-R-I-I. You can catch Hacks & Wonks on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever else you get your podcasts - just type "Hacks and Wonks" into the search bar. Be sure to subscribe to get our Friday almost-live shows and our midweek show delivered right to your podcast feed. If you like us, leave us a review wherever you listen. You can also get a full transcript of this episode and links to the resources referenced in the show at and in the episode notes.

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