Effecting change from the inside

Washington has a part-time, citizen Legislature. This means lawmakers gather in Olympia anywhere from two to four months per year to debate policy and vote on changes to state law.

However, the job is anything but part-time; lawmakers spend the full year working with constituents, researching potential legislation and, for many, also working their day jobs.

There is a benefit to having a part-time Legislature that invites people from a variety of backgrounds, with different skills and experiences, to work together toward a common goal.

Last year the Legislature succeeded in strengthening driving-under-the-influence laws, and as a lawyer I became interested in getting an inside look at how those laws were working and what additional tools prosecutors needed. After the 2013 session, I began work as a prosecutor for King County.

It was a great privilege to work alongside our public-safety professionals. I was impressed by the level of professionalism and abilities demonstrated by our public servants serving as state troopers, local officers, and public defenders. Washingtonians are fortunate to have them working as a team to dispatch justice and keep our communities safe.

After prosecuting five jury trials and handling hundreds of cases in court, I learned what works and what doesn't for our talented team of prosecutors in King County. The result was an opportunity to bring forward legislation that addressed problems from this newfound perspective.

One DUI-related proposal would help prosecutors seek more-appropriate sentences for repeat offenders who violate the conditions of their sentences, namely the requirement that they only drive automobiles equipped with an alcohol-detection device.

If a prior offender takes action to disengage a court-mandated ignition-interlock device or operate a vehicle without one, it's a clear attempt to circumvent the law. My plan would enable a prosecutor to seek increased sentences for these offenses.

A second measure would add to the types of offenses that are considered when sentencing repeat offenders. These include operating commercial vehicles, boats, and aircraft while legally impaired. By adding these offenses, prosecutors and judges would gain a more comprehensive picture of offenders' past behavior when holding them accountable.

In addition to keeping dangerous drivers off the roads, I proposed a measure that would help food assistance reach families needing it most.

Too often prison inmates continued receiving state food benefits while incarcerated. Aside from violating the law, this systemic flaw took resources away from people in need.

While people in jail are prohibited from receiving benefits from the state's Basic Food program, there is no process for communicating between correctional agencies and the Department of Social and Health Services, which issues these payments.

To correct the problem, I proposed legislation that would require information sharing to ensure tax dollars didn't continue going to someone's public-assistance account while they are in jail. The legislation will not affect the families of inmates, who would continue to be served, but will close this costly loophole. The proposal has received support from individuals within our state's social-service agency who want to see this problem corrected.

The outside experience of all part-time legislators informs how we approach policymaking in Olympia. New DUI laws and improving social service functions are just a few examples of how a citizen Legislature benefits you, South King County, and all Washington residents.

Sen. Joe Fain (R-Auburn) represents the 47th Legislative District, which includes Auburn, Kent, Covington and Renton. He serves as the Majority Floor Leader. Reach him at 360-786-7692 or e-mail Joe.Fain@leg.wa.gov.