By 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.
PubliCola (ECB): Understaffing is a major issue at the King County Jail: People can’t visit with their families or meet with defense attorneys and incarcerated people are often locked in their cells for 23 hours a day. Do you support any policies that will reduce the jail population, like releasing people who are not being held for violent offenses?
Jim Ferrell (JF): When I was seeking the the endorsement of the King County Corrections guild, I actually got to hear about a lot of these issues that are just really very difficult for them. First of all, they’re about 100 officers down, according to the guild, so they’ve got to get aggressive about filling those positions.
So, to your question, what I would say is, you can’t say “we’re just going to reduce the population of the jail” in a vacuum. What people are concerned about in the region is this sort of revolving door, where people get brought over and over and over for property crimes. So where it makes sense for community safety and where you don’t have a chronic offenders getting booked multiple times, I can see exploring that. But when people get booked for an offense, and then they’re out that later that day, that really erodes the confidence of the community that something’s actually happening.
“[Keeping the youth jail open] isn’t about jailing kids, it’s about making sure that if you committed a violent offense in King County, you’re going to be held accountable. And you can’t eliminate that.”
ECB: You’ve been very critical of Restorative Community Pathways, the county’s pre-filing juvenile diversion program. One of your criticisms is essentially that it’s a pre-filing program, which means that there isn’t a case and it doesn’t go before a judge. Do you oppose pre-filing diversion in general, and would you want to institute a different kind of juvenile diversion program? What’s the evidence that RCP isn’t working?
JF: One of the things I’ve said over and over is, I could fix RCP in a day. You take about five or six crimes off the list and add a judicial component at the beginning.
I don’t think for felonies, certain types of felonies, that you should have a pre-filing diversion. If you bring a gun to school, if you’re in somebody else’s living room in a residential burglary, if you’ve committed a robbery or a felony assault, I don’t think you should be eligible for a pre-filing diversion. And at a minimum, you’ve got to have a judicial piece of this and a check back. I don’t think it’s asking too much to say, did the person show up? Did they do what they were asked to do? And that has been consistently my concern with RCP.
And it just needs to be recalibrated. I’m not against diversions—clearly, the idea is to get people get young people back on track. But when you’re talking about felons, and these felonies that I just rattled off the top of my head are not nonviolent, you’ve got very serious crimes that are part of this. They’re just not appropriate. So that’s my position.
And this was launched with zero notice to the communities. These are cases coming out of our cities. No notice of this huge change. There is no case number, no judge, no plan, no check back. We don’t have any idea of what happens [with these cases]. This isn’t a diversion program. This is a look-the-other-way program, literally.
My concern about RCP is, ultimately if you try to sort of coax young people in the right direction, you could be creating a different type of offender. I always say comfort is the enemy of change. And if somebody has made that mistake, you don’t want to extinguish someone’s hopes or dreams, and you also want to make sure that they’re not unemployable moving forward. But you also need to make sure that you have created some just some level of discomfort, so they won’t do it again, or at least are incentivized not to.
ECB: King County Executive Dow Constantine has set the goal of closing down the juvenile jail by 2025. Do you think the goal of zero youth detention is realistic?
JF: That policy is not tethered to reality. It just isn’t. What do you do with a juvenile who pulls a trigger and shoots somebody? What do you do with the juveniles that are committing violent offenses? Where are they going to go? I mean, in fact, actually, we had the two juveniles that committed a robbery here at a pawn store, in Federal Way this year. They got electronic home detention after they held everybody in this pawn store captive for a while. And then they go out and kill somebody in Pierce County.
Unfortunately, there is a segment of the juvenile population that commits violent gun-related crimes, and you need a place to hold these individuals to protect the public, victims, and even themselves before they commit offenses that they just are never going to be able to take back. So this isn’t about jailing kids, it’s about making sure that if you committed a violent offense in King County, you’re going to be held accountable. And you can’t eliminate that.
And they just need to get serious about hiring people. And it is hard. You’ve got to incentivize and you’ve got to just get the job done. And that needs to happen. But it’s not all about locking people up. I mean, I’ve got a 15-year-old son, I would never want him locked up, ever. And I think, really, we’re talking about where you find an offender, or a juvenile, or even an adult criminal defendant on the spectrum of seriousness of the offense, priors, and danger to the community.
“Sometimes, with people that are in crisis and decompensating, you can get them back on a regimen of the medication that they need. It just depends on where you find people, where they’re at in the process, and what kind of support they had with family and friends.”
ECB: The King County Jail is not known as being a particularly therapeutic place. And a lot of people are currently in a cycle where they’re in jail for a couple days and released, only to get arrested again and repeat the cycle. Do you support keeping people in jail for short periods of time on minor offenses, even if it means they might lose their job, health care, or housing?
JF: Well, they used to say that the seventh floor of the King County Jail was the second largest mental health ward in all of Western Washington. And it’s certainly not a way to treat mental illness. Oftentimes, at the end of the month, when people would run out of their medication, whether they’re bipolar or have some sort of co-occurring mental health issue, they would essentially decompensate and end up in custody. And you don’t make these decisions in a vacuum—it’s individualized in regard to the decision to hold somebody or not hold somebody. But sometimes, with people that are in crisis and decompensating, you can get them back on a regimen of the medication that they need. It just depends on where you find people, where they’re at in the process, and what kind of support they had with family and friends.
ECB: What about situations where people are held in jail for no other reason than that they can’t afford bail?
JF: My last assignment at the prosecutor’s office was in CTI, the car theft initiative. And some of these guys would go from stolen car to stolen car to stolen car, and dump it in a parking lot, and then grab the one right one to it. So those high-impact offenders do constitute a lot of the caseload. And they do have impact. I mean, if my car gets stolen, I couldn’t have this meeting with you right now. I couldn’t get to work, I couldn’t take my son to school. It has a huge impact on people.
I think that somehow or another, we got this idea that property crimes, nonviolent offenses, we’re going to allow that. But if you’re committing a felony crime, you’re going to be impacting other people. And when I talk to people, they really feel like the systematic response has been inadequate, because the community is getting victimized repeatedly. There should be some punishment for that—reasonable punishment based on a person’s prior record, but there should be some punishment.
ECB: Seattle Municipal Court recently agreed to restrict so-called high utilizers from accessing community court. I’m curious what you thought of that decision and if you think the county’s therapeutic courts, like drug court and mental health court, are doing a good job, particularly with people who may not be ready or able to comply with the conditions established by the court.
JF: I think drug court, mental health court, all of those type of courts are really the model for alternative dispositions. And it’s not zero tolerance—they really do want people to succeed. I talk a lot about drug court, because I think drug court is really the model for how to do this. It’s just so difficult for people to get off drugs and alcohol. They mask other issues that are that are also present. So we’ve got to get to the root causes. And you need to give people enough latitude, where if they have some sort of relapse, as long as it’s not flagrant, if they’re still willing to try, you don’t give up on them. But ultimately, what’s critically important about drug and mental health court is there’s a checkbox, there are accountability steps, and you can see whether somebody is going in the right direction or wrong direction.
ECB: You’ve talked about the case backlog at the prosecutor’s office, which has been largely due to cases piling up during COVID and the fact that the courts are still not operating at full capacity. What policies would you propose to get through that backlog more quickly?
JF: The first thing is, if you think of it like a pipeline, you’ve got a capacity issue. And there’s only a certain number of judges. And you’ve got speedy trial concerns. So you’ve got to expand the pipeline. And the way to do that is you got to hire more pro tem [judges]. And the prosecutor’s office has got to come up with a discernible plan. And the homicides and sexual assault cases, those absolutely have to go first.
ECB: That seems like you’re saying the prosecutor’s office has to let some cases go, not prosecuting some of those cases that you’ve said need to be prosecuted. When it comes to the case backlog, could some of those cases be triaged out?
JF: Obviously, the most serious violent offenses, sexual assaults, they’ve got to go first. The delay on these cases is just not good for those cases. And I think that what you’d have to do is take a look at whether it’s property crime—obviously, property crime would be at the bottom—and also, do we have cases in which they’re just not prosecutable anymore? How many cases are up against the statute of limitations? And you take the oldest cases first.
Anybody who’s ever tried any amount of criminal cases would know that they don’t get better with age. What they don’t tell you in law school is half the battle of being a prosecutor is trying to locate your witnesses. And some of these cases are likely just not viable when they’re sitting on the shelf.
ECB: You’ve frequently cited your Democratic Party bona fides, noting that you’ve been an active member of the party for many years. But you recently stood alongside Mike Solan, the head of the Seattle Police Officers Guild, at a press conference where SPOG and other law enforcement groups publicly endorsed you. Solan is a hardline conservative who defended the Seattle police officers who were in Washington D.C. on January 6. Why did you appear at SPOG’s press conference next to Solan, and in what way do your political views differ from his?
JF: I’ve been mayor almost nine years. I was on the city council for 10 years. So I’ve been in public office almost 20 years. Every time I have run for public office, I’ve had the support of the Federal Way police and police officers guild, and I’m proud of it. I’ve never really been involved with what I refer to as sort of the Seattle political ecosystem. Before this race, I had never met Mike and had generally just sort of heard of him. This isn’t about him individually.
And I take great offense at some any kind of linkage with January 6—I mean, great offense. That is offensive to me. And that’s why people don’t like politics. I don’t care about [Solan’s] politics. The fact of the matter is, he is the president of the Seattle Police Officers Guild that represents 1,000 police officers. And that’s why I accepted their endorsement. He represents it as the president of the rank and file of the Seattle Police Department. This isn’t about Mike, and my opponent wants to make it about him. And I’m not playing that game.