By Paul Kiefer
Longtime King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg announced his retirement in January, setting in motion what is sure to be a heated race to fill a position with enormous sway over how King County balances new restorative justice projects with traditional prosecution.
Leesa Manion, Satterberg’s chief of staff, was the first candidate to step forward to replace the 15-year incumbent. Since Manion first joined the King County Prosecutor’s Office 27 years ago, the office has branched out beyond prosecution, partnering with felony diversion programs for young adults and launching a new unit to review and correct excessive prison sentences imposed in the past.
But the prosecutor’s office has critics on both the left and the right, including law enforcement groups who accuse prosecutors of being too lenient and civil liberties groups who condemn Satterberg’s defense of a Washington state law requiring children charged with some serious crimes to be tried as adults.
PubliCola sat down—virtually—with Manion to discuss her priorities for the prosecutor’s office.
PubliCola: Fear of crime was a driving force in Seattle’s most recent election, and it will likely remain a driving force in the race for King County Prosecutor. You’ve said that one of your goals is to combat myths about crime and public safety. What’s one of the most widespread misconceptions about crime and public safety in Seattle, and what problems do misconceptions about crime create for the prosecutor’s office?
Leesa Manion: I was in a meeting just earlier this week where people were asking why juvenile crime is out of control. The truth is that juvenile crime is down, even while crime committed by adults is up. If we don’t share that information and share it often, it doesn’t allow people to know that some of the juvenile diversion strategies we’ve had in place for years are working—and that the public can have faith in them.
PC: Several county officials, including one of your opponents, Federal Way Mayor Jim Ferrell, have criticized the prosecutor’s office for expanding juvenile and adult diversion programs. How do you make the case to skeptics that diversion should be a larger component of the county’s public safety strategy?
LM: I know that there’s a great deal of frustration in our community right now regarding public safety, and especially with regards to organized retail theft, catalytic converter theft, and other commercial crimes. I have always been proud of the fact that the folks in Seattle and King County are compassionate, and I know their compassion has been tested.
“I think that every person who is arrested, convicted and sent to prison as a result of Operation New Day will eventually be released. We have an obligation to make sure each of them comes back out with a different skill, that they can access opportunities and get back on their feet.”
I also know that our citizens are super smart. And they understand that there is a difference between individuals who are systematically preying upon businesses and others to profit off their criminal acts, versus the individuals who are acting out of a mental health disorder, substance use disorder, or behavioral health issue. And both populations, if you will, are deserving of accountability. But accountability looks different for different people. And as we know from our juvenile diversion programs, because we’re getting fewer young people referred to the prosecutor’s office than ever before, diversion works. It can be evidence-based, and it can be very effective.
PC: At the same time, you appeared at a press conference last Friday to announce the early results—mostly arrests—of the Seattle Police Department’s Operation New Day, a crackdown on so-called “hot spots” for the trade in stolen merchandise and drugs in Little Saigon and downtown. How does “hot spot” policing mesh with your vision for a more sustainable, long-term public safety strategy in King County?
LM: I don’t like the phrase “hot spot,” but that’s not the question. I do think focused enforcement can have an impact. If you walk around [12th Ave. S. and S. Jackson St.] today, it feels vastly different than it did two months ago. Individuals who are preying on others, dealing dangerous drugs, and targeting businesses need to be held accountable. That said, I think there’s a belief that the criminal justice system should prosecute people, put them in prison and throw away the key. I don’t think that’s effective or warranted. I think that every person who is arrested, convicted and sent to prison as a result of Operation New Day will eventually be released. We have an obligation to make sure each of them comes back out with a different skill, that they can access opportunities and get back on their feet.
PC: During that press conference, you mentioned that you are working with Seattle City Attorney Ann Davison’s office to aggregate some misdemeanor theft charges into felony charges based on the value of the items that a person stole or the number of times they shoplifted. Why do you feel that is necessary, and if you were elected prosecutor, would you use the same strategy on a larger scale?
LM: I would do that in areas that have really extreme challenges. Business owners in the downtown core are asking for relief from organized retail theft. They are closing their shops and their customers are afraid. In that context, it makes sense to aggregate misdemeanor charges to combat things like organized retail theft. Do I think that’s warranted in every single misdemeanor case? No. I don’t think we would aggregate a bunch of misdemeanor trespass cases into a felony. Someone who is sleeping in a doorway or someone who, because of mental illness, is still frequenting businesses where employees have to tell them to leave doesn’t need a felony charge. Those individuals can be referred to service providers. Aggregating charges is not a blanket approach.
PC: Speaking of communicating across offices, how do you think the county should approach booking restrictions at King County jails once COVID winds down? Right now, the county is starting to loosen its rules up a bit, but the restrictions on booking people for nonviolent misdemeanors are still in place.
LM: Like most things, you’re not going to be able to solve the complex problems that show up at the doors of the criminal justice system with an all-or-nothing approach. You really have to do an individual examination of each case, and you have to be thoughtful about how you use your resources. I don’t think you can say, “everyone gets booked,” and I wouldn’t get behind that. I also don’t think you can say, “no one gets booked.” Those are false choices.
PC: But the current booking restrictions aren’t all-or-nothing, so isn’t that a bit of a straw man?
LM: I think that there’s a common misunderstanding that booking restrictions are all-or-nothing. Say you wanted to have blanket restrictions on booking people for all misdemeanors. I don’t think you can do that, because there might be someone who is facing a misdemeanor charge but who has something very troubling in their criminal history or they’re currently under investigation for a serious crime. Until we share that information with the jail or get that information from law enforcement, and before we can assess our options, it’s hard to have a blanket policy saying that we can’t book them.
“Business owners in the downtown core are asking for relief from organized retail theft. They are closing their shops and their customers are afraid. In that context, it makes sense to aggregate misdemeanor charges to combat things like organized retail theft.”
Similarly, I don’t think you can say that out an abundance of caution, we should book everyone. There are probably a lot of individuals who commit nonviolent crimes and who we could effectively navigate to service providers. That said, we might see a 30-day rise in the number of people in the jail if there’s a new emphasis patrol or a new focused enforcement spot. With Operation New Day, there might be an extra 10 people in the jail on an average day than there were before it. If you take credit for jail numbers going down, you have to be prepared to take heat when they go back up.
PC: On the topic of the jail, you’ve said that you’re interested in scaling up drug treatment options within both King County jails and Washington State Prisons. What role would you have in those programs as an elected prosecutor, and are you confident in the effectiveness of jail-based treatment?
LM: As someone who’s worked in King County for a very long time, and if I were to be elected as a prosecutor, I get to have a seat at the table at all sorts of important policy meetings with the executive branch, with our courts, and with King County Public Health. As to the effectiveness of treatment in jail or prison, like all types of treatment, it may not take the first time. We have learned that sometimes relapse is part of recovery when it comes to substance use disorder. I think we have to ask what we’re comparing jail-based treatment to. If we don’t offer treatment in jail because it doesn’t have a 100 percent success rate, that seems very wrongheaded. If we don’t offer treatment in prison because someone’s there for life or because we reserve it for people who are getting out in 60 days, I think that’s a mistake.
“I have told Dan [Satterberg] that I’ve always felt that it was a mistake that he didn’t attend our monthly police chiefs and sheriffs meeting. As the elected prosecutor, you should go. You can’t build a relationship if you’re not in a room. And we have to build relationships with law enforcement. “
PC: You have been involved in the prosecutor’s office for a long time, and in some respects, voters may view you as a continuation of Dan Satterberg. How do you differ from Satterberg, and how would those differences manifest if you were elected to lead the King County Prosecutor’s Office?
LM: I think there are already some really key significant ways that I differ from Dan Satterberg. I’m very committed to victim services in a way that’s concrete. I’ve added 10 victim advocates and a director of victim services to the office, and I have increased services for victims of sexual assault.
I am also much more active in the community: I meet with partners, and I’m very comfortable going to a meeting where there’s not a formal agenda just to listen to observe. I have told Dan that I’ve always felt that it was a mistake that he didn’t attend our monthly police chiefs and sheriffs meeting. As the elected prosecutor, you should go. You can’t build a relationship if you’re not in a room. And we have to build relationships with law enforcement. They’re important partners to any sort of criminal justice reform, and you cannot get them on your side if you’re not in the room.
Also, in the very rare instance that we would prosecute a juvenile as an adult for the most violent crime, I would have those cases prosecuted by our juvenile unit, not in our adult prosecution unit.
PC: What else makes you stand out from the field of candidates in the race to be the next King County Prosecutor?
LM: I stand out from my opponents because of my level of experience and my relationships, not just in King County, but with our federal partners, municipal governments up and down the I-5 corridor, and in the community. There’s no one more experienced and no one who understands the office better than I do, so I would be able to hit the ground running. Neither of my opponents have recent experience with the King County budget process, and neither of my opponents has had any kind of meaningful interaction with our civil division… And we have an office of nearly 600 employees and an annual budget of $80 million. I think that the men and the women in our office who have dedicated their lives to public service are looking for experience and consistent leadership.