King County Prosecuting Attorney: PubliCola Picks Leesa Manion

Current King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, an iconoclastic former Republican who has long embraced a rehabilitative approach to public safety unusual among prosecutors, will retire next year after 15 years in office. The options to replace Satterberg include his longtime chief of staff, Leesa Manion, and Federal Way Mayor Jim Ferrell—another Republican-turned-Democrat who has promised to resurrect many of the punitive policies of previous eras, tossing aside years of prosecutorial reform in favor of outdated 1990s-style approaches to crime and punishment.

PubliCola Picks graphicFerrell, a former senior deputy prosecutor in the office, has tacked well to the right of Manion, embracing endorsements from law-enforcement groups (including the Seattle Police Officers Guild and its controversial leader Mike Solan) and spouting law-and-order talking points about “chronic offenders” and “revolving doors” while reflexively rejecting community-based rehabilitation programs.

If elected, Ferrell has vowed to eviscerate Restorative Community Pathways, a pre-filing diversion program that connects young people facing their first felony charge with community-based diversion programs, by making many offenses ineligible and subjecting all RCP participants to charges. These changes are unlikely to improve community safety or improve the accountability of this somewhat opaque program; instead, they would ensure that fewer kids enroll in RCP, which also provides restitution and counseling for victims.

King County Prosecutor Candidate Leesa Manion
King County Prosecutor Candidate Leesa Manion

Ferrell has argued that it makes sense to hold some people with behavioral health disorders in jail prior to trial, on the grounds that jail can help “stabilize” them and get them on a path to treatment. In reality, the jail is a chaotic, poorly staffed institution where inmates have reported difficulty meeting with attorneys or getting basic medical care—hardly a therapeutic environment for people with complex conditions that require compassion, not confinement. While PubliCola supports improving access to both physical and behavioral health care for incarcerated people, Ferrell isn’t proposing those kind of systemic solutions; instead, he’s embracing a Band-Aid approach to deep-rooted problems that can’t be addressed by a quick stint in jail-based treatment.

Although the prosecuting attorney’s office does not direct county or city policy, the criminal justice system is overloaded with people experiencing poverty and homelessness, and poor people often end up stuck in jail because they can’t afford bail or electronic home monitoring. As mayor, Ferrell has embraced what he called a “tough-love” approach to homelessness, accusing homeless people of choosing a “lack-of-accountability lifestyle” and supporting Federal Way’s ban on encampments in public spaces. People experiencing homelessness need housing and services, not the “tough love” of incarceration; we need a county prosecutor who sees the county’s most vulnerable residents, even those who commit crimes, as more than merely criminals.

Manion is hardly a progressive icon. Her moderate platform consists largely of promises to continue reform initiatives Satterberg started and to take a similarly “compassionate” approach to defendants whose offenses are tied up in poverty, racism, and lack of access to health care. Her belief that the system fundamentally works has caused her to justify obviously poor decisions. Earlier this year, for example, the prosecutor’s office charged a homeless man in a year-and-a-half-old theft case despite the fact that he had enrolled in LEAD and had not reoffended; Manion said he was a good candidate for drug court, which mandates sobriety, despite the fact that he had been unable to comply with similar programs at least 22 times in the past.

Still, on policy alone, Manion is a better pick than Ferrell, who we fear would dismantle programs and policies Satterberg established, undoing decades of slow but steady reform. For that reason, and because she would support alternative approaches that improve public safety by addressing the root causes of some criminal behavior, PubliCola picks Leesa Manion.

PubliCola’s editorial board is Erica C. Barnett and Josh Feit.

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