by Paul Kiefer
When longtime King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg announced his retirement in January, his office was in the middle of a decade-long transformation. Since Satterberg took over 15 years ago, the King County Prosecutor’s Office has branched out beyond standard 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. The race to replace Satterberg will determine whether King County voters believe those transformations moved the prosecutor’s office in the right direction—or whether the office needs to shift further in the direction of restorative justice.
Stephan Thomas emerged as a Satterberg critic nearly a year before he entered the race last month. After Satterberg challenged a Washington Supreme Court decision requiring judges to consider a defendant’s age when sentencing children in adult courts, Thomas wrote an a Seattle Times op-ed condemning Satterberg for “doubling down on a racist practice that fails to keep our community safe”; Satterberg’s attempt to appeal the decision to the US Supreme Court later failed.
Thomas is no stranger to the King County Prosecutor’s Office. He joined the office as an intern in 2010; became a deputy prosecutor a year later, spending six years as a trial attorney in the criminal division; and ascended into Satterberg’s executive team in 2017 to lead the office’s community justice initiatives before departing two years later. He now teaches law in an adjunct position at Seattle University.
PubliCola sat down—virtually—with Thomas to discuss his priorities for the prosecutor’s office.
PubliCola: You cite Satterberg’s defense of Washington’s so-called “auto-decline” law, which requires the state to prosecute children as adults for some crimes, as a key reason for your decision to join this race. If you are elected to be King County’s next prosecutor, how would you approach a case involving an underage defendant accused of a serious felony?
Stephan Thomas: The first thing I think of is a case that happened not so long ago in which two teenager shot and killed two people in an encampment under I-5 called the Jungle. They were charged as adults, and they ended up getting sentenced to TWO? decades in prison. It didn’t seem like anyone sat back and looked at the failed systems that lead to those kids being in that situation in the first place. First things first, we need space to be able to ask those questions. There were multiple missed opportunities that we had to reach them, and no one else has been held accountable except for these young men. And the only accountability in that case, or quote-unquote accountability, is sending them to prison for multiple decades.
PC: In a practical sense, what does that mean? Does it mean lobbying for the state law to change, or does it mean simply improving our interventions upstream so you don’t wind up prosecuting young people for murder?
ST: People need to recognize that the prosecutor has a powerful advocacy role. And even with the law as it stands, we have the ability right now to look back at what might have brought a young person into contact with the prosecutor’s office to identify holes that we need to fill. It might be education, it might be housing, and it might be mental health treatment opportunities—those are also things the prosecutor can advocate for. I also think we don’t accomplish the goal of rehabilitation by transferring young people into the adult prison system. We need to advocate for the state to lengthen the amount of time a person can be held in the juvenile detention system.
PC: King County’s jail population plummeted during the pandemic, in part because the County decided it could reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission by not filling the jails with people booked for nonviolent misdemeanors. Those restrictions will end once the pandemic subsides, which could mean the jail population rises once again. As elected prosecutor, how would you advise the county to approach detention in a post-COVID world?
ST: I’m looking for other opportunities to be able to secure people in a place that is not in a cage. Can the King County Jail be reformatted or reformed in a way that’s much more rehabilitative than steel cages? Can we recognize that a jail cell is not a place for someone to get the help that they need? Right now, it seems like we’re just trying to nibble around the edges. We decide that certain people won’t go to jail for certain offenses, at least temporarily. That isn’t a long-term fix, and jail has never been a long-term fix.
PC: The next elected prosecutor will need to find a way to work with the City of Seattle if it goes forward with a policing strategy that targets so-called crime ‘hot spots.’ Do you think there’s a way for that strategy to be effective?
ST: Look at what happened. We cleaned up [12th Ave S. and S. Jackson St.], and people moved to [Third Ave. and Pike St.]. Then two people get shot and killed there. So, we move people off that corner, but the same thing will happen over and over again. What we should have done, and what I would advocate we do if I’m prosecutor, is start with outreach teams from housing and service providers. We should take time to figure out what people at a corner need, and then we should make sure we have real opportunities for housing, job training, and treatment to offer—not just hollow offers, which is often the case now.
It is a shame we’re telling these business owners the best thing and the only thing we can offer is to lock up everyone on the street outside. That shouldn’t be the first step. Growing up in Chicago in the 1990s, I saw that first-hand. They turned up with the police and battering rams, busted down doors, sent people to prison, and said it would make our community safer. All we got was mass incarceration, our community remaining under-resourced, and families being broken apart.
It is a shame we’re telling these business owners the best thing and the only thing we can offer is to lock up everyone on the street outside. Of course, if we exhaust all other options, then law enforcement should come in, but that shouldn’t be the first step. Growing up in Chicago in the 1990s, I saw that first-hand. They turned up with the police and battering rams, busted down doors, sent people to prison, and said it would make our community safer. All we got was mass incarceration, our community remaining under-resourced, and families being broken apart. Right now, it feels like we’re going back to that era. As prosecutor, I would want to push the prosecutor’s office and its partners to think about providing services first instead.
PC: As prosecutor, you would also lead an office that sexual assault survivors frequently criticize for doing too little to support victims of sexual assault. What would you say to sexual assault survivors mulling their options in this race?
ST: Right now, the court process is horrible for survivors. I’ve talked with prosecutors who told me that if one of their children was assaulted, they would not want to send them through the court system to seek justice. They know that once you get into the court system, you get cross-examined, you are made out to be a liar, and the entire experience only does more harm. I would try to figure out what we can do to provide all survivors with the support they need, and a first step towards that is recognizing that not every survivor will want to use the courts as a path towards healing. We only get a small percentage of people who have caused harm before a judge, so we’re already missing the vast majority of sexual assault cases. For now, I would look for ways to find more community support for survivors, so survivors who may not feel comfortable participating in the process or confident that the system will bring them peace of mind have someone to listen to them and care about them.
PC: Though you certainly have experience in the prosecutor’s office, you are also the candidate with the least executive experience. What makes you more prepared to lead the prosecutor’s office than the other candidates in this race?
ST: I’m personally impacted by the issues the prosecutor’s office deals with. I’ve had personal experiences as a victim of crime, as a gang member, as a trial attorney. I’ve handled domestic violence and sexual assault cases. I’ve been on the executive team. I’ve been a trainer for prosecutors across the country. Given all those experiences, I am uniquely positioned to understand the impact of what the prosecutor’s office does. I am also the candidate who is really being honest about how the current system is failing us.
The only path forward is for us to look towards transformation, to build something that is not built on the foundation of racism and discrimination and instead aims for true safety and rehabilitation for everyone who comes into contact with it. are built on a pathway of true safety and restoration. The other candidates are talking about nibbling around the edges. Right now, we’re returning to the mistakes of the 1990s. If you want real transformation, if you want someone who’s going to be really honest with you, that’s me.