PubliCola Questions: King County Prosecuting Attorney Candidate Leesa Manion

King County Prosecutor Candidate Leesa ManionBy Erica C. Barnett

Current King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, a former Republican who embraced a rehabilitative approach to public safety unusual among prosecutors, will retire next year after more than two decades in office. His longtime chief of staff, Leesa Manion, played a critical role in his office, helping to set and implement the policies for which Satterberg was known, including the decision to stop charging people for low-level drug possession and the creation of a number of alternatives to incarceration, including Restorative Community Pathways, which allows young people to avoid charges for first-time felonies by connecting to community-based groups and enrolling in their diversion programs.

Manion’s support for RCP and other Satterberg initiatives has made her a target for a number of tough-on-crime officials, including a group of South King County mayors who issued a statement in August demanding “improved and timely juvenile and adult felony criminal accountability at the County level,” including more prosecutions and a greater reliance on incarceration as a response to “the rising tide of crime and violence in our communities.”

Federal Way Mayor Jim Ferrell, who’s also running for prosecutor, signed this statement, as well as a letter calling on legislators to adopt harsher penalties for drug use in response to the Blake decision, which effectively decriminalized simple drug possession. Ferrell has made Restorative Community Pathways a centerpiece of his campaign, calling it a “look-the-other-way” program because participants don’t have to face charges as part of their participation in the program. As mayor, Ferrell has used similar language to describe unsheltered people, supporting his city’s ban on encampments in public spaces and accusing people who live in encampments of embracing a “lack-of-accountability lifestyle.”

PubliCola sat down (virtually) with both candidates for King County Prosecutor in September.

By Erica C. Barnett

PubliCola (ECB): I want to start by asking about the situation at the King County Jail. Among lots of other problems, understaffing is making it harder for public defenders to meet with clients. Do you support policies that will reduce the population at the jail, such as releasing people whose crimes aren’t violent? If not, why not?

Leesa Manion (LM): An important principle of our criminal legal system is that people have a right to counsel and that means they have to be able to meet with them. And also, if I’m thinking about the backlog of felony cases, we also want charged individuals to be able to meet with their attorneys, because we want to be able to resolve cases. And that’s in everyone’s interest—having people languish while they’re waiting to have their case heard is not helpful to anyone.

Second, I do believe in lowering populations for the right cases. I’ll be really honest with you, individuals who’ve committed violent crimes, sexual assaults, gun crimes, homicides—it’s really hard to argue for their release as individuals, and they’ve created great harm to an actual individual person, victim, family member. I don’t think we have enough robust, meaningful alternatives to detention in King County. We know from research that things like community housing, electronic home monitoring, text reminders, all have an impact, and they can protect public safety and secure the release of an individual and also help guarantee their return to court. We just don’t have enough of those.

ECB: Tell me a little bit about the adult diversion program that the county is planning to launch this year—is that the kind of meaningful alternative you’re talking about?

LM: There are a lot of similarities between the community diversion program and Restorative Community Pathways. The idea is to take first-time, nonviolent felony cases and to refer those individuals to community-based resources, so that they can get to the root cause of their poor decision making and behavior, and to offer those same types of resources to victims or harmed parties, including a loss recovery fund so that harmed parties have some of their out-of -pocket expenses taken care of.

Early reports show that RCP has a recidivism rate of 8 percent compared to either 21 percent or 58 percent, depending on what metric you’re looking at. Knowing that we can have success with juveniles, it kind of implies that we could try to have that same success with adults.

“I am proud of the fact that we file conservatively, that we want people to take accountability early on, and we’re not overcharging.”

ECB: The Seattle Times editorial board recently posted an interview with you and your opponent in which the Times said only 10 percent of sexual crimes reported to the sheriff’s office are prosecuted. The report they were citing actually reflected a much more nuanced picture than the way Times presented it, but it made me curious: Why do such a large number of sexual crimes never make it to the prosecutor’s office, much less lead to a conviction, and would you propose any steps to increase prosecutions of these cases?

LM: We participated in and fully cooperated with that audit. And one of the things they did is they looked at all the cases that we had declined. And the audit found that we did not declined a single case in error. And the recommendations that they had specific to [the prosecutor’s office], we were not only in agreement with, but were in the process of implementing by the time that the report was published. And one that was really meaningful to us was ensuring that a greater number of victims receive services earlier in the process. So we have [the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center], which is a great partnership. We also added 10 victim advocate positions in the office.

Once cases are reported, we have a shortage of police resources right now. The Seattle Police Department used to have 12 sexual assault detectives, and now they have four. And since they reduced, we have received 50 percent fewer referrals from SPD. I don’t think that there are 50 percent fewer sexual assaults that are going on. But I do think that their bandwidth and their capacity to respond and investigate sexual assaults was greatly diminished.

Then once those cases get referred to us, we have to look at the evidence, and we have to make that hard call about whether we have evidence sufficient to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. And if we don’t have evidence, it’s really not only responsible, but it’s unethical for us to file those cases. You know, people often are like, oh, you should just file the case and give it to a jury and see if it sticks. That’s actually not our ethical obligation. There have been movements in recent years to change the definition of consent, for example, so that it does a more systemic job of addressing some of the challenges in prosecuting sexual assault cases, because that’s often the really difficult thing to establish—that there was lack of consent.

ECB: Your boss, Dan Satterberg, said at a recent forum that the system basically wouldn’t work if more than 5 percent of cases went to trial, which is why prosecutors offer more lenient sentences to people who plead guilty without taking cases to trial. Do you think this is leading to unjust outcomes or excessive sentences?

LM: I wish I had a simple answer to that. There are two practices in our country. One: There are prosecutor’s offices where they’re like, we are charging everything up front, we’re gonna charge you with five counts of this plus enhancements. And it makes it really easy to drop charges or drop enhancements. And among public defenders or private defense counsel, there may be this sense of, yeah, that’s a pretty easy sell to my client. When you’re looking at, say,. 20 years versus 10, that’s easy math to do.

[Second, there’s] the way we do it, I am proud of the fact that we file conservatively, that we want people to take accountability early on, and we’re not overcharging. I’m really proud of that. I think the challenge with what I’ve heard described to me as the challenge of adding charges, is that yes, there are some who would characterize that as a trial penalty.

ECB: Are you open to eliminating or reducing the use of cash bail for nonviolent offenses? What do you see as the purpose of cash bail, and how to you respond to the criticism that it keeps people in jail for long periods on charges while they’re still presumed innocent?

LM: We don’t have that path in King County, I’ll just be really honest with you. Cash bail was developed as a means of ensuring someone’s return to court. And we know that the challenge around cash bail is that it disproportionately impacts the poor and BIPOC communities. That is less of a challenge here in King County than in other parts of the country. But that doesn’t mean that we can fail to address it.

When you take away cash bail, and you give judges a binary choice of release or detain, I think you will have more judges making the decision to detain out of an abundance of caution. I think that the systemic change that would be more equitable, and more fair, and more long-lasting would be to have a robust set of alternatives [to incarceration] that well funded, designed to be fair, and designed also to protect public safety. Because that means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Public safety means a lot of things to me. But the challenge about having people feel like they’re not safe is that it does threaten, in my view, some of the really great alternatives and some of the really great reforms that we have built over the past 15-plus years..

ECB: What sort of alternatives are you thinking of?

LM: I mean, some people really need structure. They might need a safe place to live, they might need treatment, they may not have a way to get to court, they might need transportation. They may not have the ability to kind of follow the calendar in a way that a type A like me might follow it, so they might need a reminder. And then there are some people that maybe they’ve committed a crime that is not homicide, but maybe it was a pretty serious assault, who could maybe be at home on electronic monitoring devices. It has kind of a full menu of options. And we just don’t have that in King County right now. It doesn’t mean we couldn’t build it. But that’s an opportunity for us.

ECB: Do you think the county’s therapeutic courts, like drug court and mental health court, have been successful in helping people with multiple barriers like long term addiction and homelessness?

LM: I think drug court has been successful, because we hear it in every single graduation. It doesn’t mean it’s successful for everyone, it doesn’t mean it’s the right fit for everyone. I believe in the value of drug court, veterans court, and mental health court, and I think we should provide increased access to all three of those therapeutic courts. I also think we need to offer more community-based treatment options. And we also need to offer treatment on demand. Individuals shouldn’t have to come in contact with the criminal justice system just to get help. And I think in order to have that have the type of impact that we want, we have to be honest about the size of the need in our community. When we aren’t honest about those types of things, we can bring a lot of people around the table together, and we can have a lot of great conversation, but we won’t have the results that we want.

“I think Operation New Day was effective in this way: It interrupted a scene, if you will, a collection of behaviors that people felt was scary and intolerable, and that caused a lot of alarm and concern. Focused policing can definitely have an impact, but we also have to have focused treatment and focused services.”

ECB: You supported Operation New Day, which targeted a few key intersections, like 12th and Jackson, with intensive hot-spot police patrols. I don’t know if you’ve been to 12th and Jackson recently, but the open-air market is very much back—it’s just sort of distributed around the whole block. Do you still consider those efforts a success?

LM: I think Operation New Day was effective in this way: It interrupted a scene, if you will, a collection of behaviors that people felt was scary and intolerable, and that caused a lot of alarm and concern. Focused policing can definitely have an impact, but we also have to have focused treatment and focused services. And in a perfect world, this is what we would have: We would have the mobile [police] precinct and we would have the mobile health clinic, and they would be right next door to each other. They’d be together. And we would have not only police officers addressing some of the alarming behavior that we saw on 12th and Jackson, like selling fentanyl to vulnerable individuals, but we would also have social workers and medical professionals seeing and treating individuals, and an army of social workers helping to find safe housing and safe shelter for individuals. In an ideal world, we’d have both. It’s not an either/or, it’s a yes, and.

ECB: Given that we don’t live in that ideal world, do you think this strategy is effective? Or is it just disrupting these activities at one location for a little while?

LM: I think it does disrupt. And I think there’s some value in the disruption. But I want to be really honest: It’s a short-term option. It can be beneficial to the community, and it can be beneficial to individuals who want to feel safe. It can be beneficial to business owners who are afraid to go into their businesses, and customers who are afraid to shop in those stores. But it doesn’t mean that it’s effective for the individuals who are suffering from trauma, mental health, substance use disorder. I understand why store owners were afraid at 12th and Jackson.  I also understand that there are individuals who are really vulnerable and are fighting to meet basic needs. We have to address both.

ECB: The King County Executive announced plans two years ago to close the youth jail by 2025, but the population is up and it’s unclear how much progress has been made toward that goal. Do you think that the goal of zero youth detention is realistic?

LM: I like the aspirational goal of zero youth detention. In my opinion, we do not have the upstream support. We don’t have enough services to meet the needs. I’m not sure we have the right messengers for all of the types of messages that we want young people and families to have. And I don’t think we’ve funded any of the prevention strategies in the way that we need. Take this as an example: I don’t like to argue against myself in terms of budget, but 76 percent of the King County general fund goes to criminal justice, and something like 17 percent goes to Public Health. I can’t even imagine what it would look like if, say, it was 50 percent going to public health. At some point, we’re going have to figure out how to make that flip. It won’t be overnight, but is there a plan where public health grows 5 percent a year and criminal justice shrinks? That wouldn’t be an interesting concept and conversation to explore.

ECB: There’s currently a significant backlog of charged cases awaiting resolution in King County Superior Court. Can you explain how that backlog happened, what kind of cases are in the backlog, and what you’ll do to move those cases along?

LM: There is a court backlog of 4,500 filed felony charges—violent crimes, sexual assault, felony property crimes, gun crimes. And the reason that number is high is because the prosecutor’s office never stopped working during the pandemic. We were in the courthouse every day finding between 20 to 30 felony charges. During the same period of time, the Washington State Supreme Court issued an emergency order to close courts. And that effectively halted the system’s ability to resolve cases. So cases were stacking up. I was successful in securing $14 million in COVID relief funding, and we have used some of that money to hire 120 additional staff. And 10 of those are victim advocates, because we wanted to ensure a greater number of victims and survivors were getting services while cases were pending. And since March of 2021, that backlog number has been steadily decreasing, because of the extra funding, because of the resumption of jury trials, because of the hard work of prosecutors, our legal professionals, and also public defenders. And I think we’re on target to eliminate that backlog.