Tag: King County Prosecutor’s Office

How Seattle’s Crackdown on Crime Ensnared a Homeless Man and Made His Struggle With Addiction Worse

Photo of downtown Seattle Target exterior
The downtown Seattle Target where, according to police and prosecutors, a homeless man stole dozens of bottles of liquor in less than a month, resulting in a felony charge for “organized retail theft”

By Erica C. Barnett

Here’s how charging documents describe Trey Alexander, a 40-something Black man who was recently charged with organized retail crime for stealing liquor from a Target store in downtown Seattle: A “career criminal” and “chronic shoplifter” whose offenses over the past 15 years have included theft, drug possession, and criminal trespass. (Trey Alexander isn’t his real name; we’re calling him that to protect his anonymity.)

In a statement seeking felony charges against Alexander in March, SPD officer Zsolt Dornay wrote that Alexander had stolen “at least $2,398 worth of alcohol” over several weeks in late 2020 and early 2021. Previous efforts to rehabilitate Alexander had been unsuccessful, Dornay wrote: While under the supervision of the state Department Corrections (DOC), Alexander “failed to comply with [mandatory conditions] on at least twenty-two (22) occasions.” Before moving to Seattle in the mid-2000s, Alexander had “done two prison stretches” in another state—emphasis in the original.

Most of this is a matter of public record, taken from a report Dornay wrote for the court in March. (If you recognize Dornay’s name, it might be because he has a history of violent and unprofessional behavior, including one case that led to a civil rights lawsuit and a payout of $160,000). And  there’s a lot that Dornay’s narrative leaves out—details that contradict the picture of a remorseless criminal.

For instance: Nearly  every time he was arrested, Alexander gave the address of a homeless shelter as his home address—usually 77 South Washington, the Compass Center shelter in Pioneer Square. In reality, he lived in a tent. With no job, prospects, or ties to a supportive community, he drank heavily and didn’t have a lot of reasons to stop; when he “failed to comply” with program requirements, what that meant is that he continued to drink in spite of the consequences, which is a fundamental part of the definition of addiction. In the months before and after the prosecutor filed charges against him, the city had swept his encampment at least four times—most recently in April, when they threw away the cell phone that connected him to his case manager, whose job includes making sure he shows up in court. 

“They throw people away.”—Brandie Flood, director of community justice, REACH

Even with all these challenges, Alexander was making progress. In mid-2021, a few months after his final arrest, he enrolled in the LEAD program, which provides case management and helps clients navigate the criminal legal system. Since then, he has not reoffended, and he finally got approved for housing earlier this year. But he also failed to show up for his arraignment in drug court, twice; now, he’s facing a warrant and the potential of five years in prison, plus a fine of up to $10,000.

“You’re trying to be functional, and you’re doing well, and then this comes up… and you’re not getting any credit for the progress you’ve made,” said Brandie Flood, the director of community justice at REACH, which provides case management for LEAD clients like Alexander. “It’s a real setback.”

In recent months, Seattle and King County officials, including City Attorney Ann Davison and Mayor Bruce Harrell, have promised to crack down on “prolific offenders” who they argue are contributing a sense of danger and “disorder” in downtown Seattle. Elected officials, pollsters, and news media often conflate these crimes with homelessness, implying that homeless people are inherently dangerous or that arresting people for shoplifting and street level-drug sales will reduce visible homelessness in Seattle’s parks and streets. In March, Harrell announced “Operation New Day,” a series of emphasis patrols focused on criminal activity at Third and Pine downtown and at 12th and Jackson in the International District. Days later, Davison announced she would pursue harsher punishments for people, like Alexander, who have been arrested repeatedly for low-level crimes.

Alexander isn’t on Davison’s official “high utilizers” list, which includes people who have been accused of 12 or more misdemeanors in the past five years. (Prior to his two felony charges, Alexander was accused of 10 misdemeanors in the past five years). But his offenses fall under another category city and county officials have also vowed to target: Organized retail theft. The name is a misnomer. Although it implies crime rings trafficking in stolen goods, “organized retail theft” also includes lone individuals, like Alexander, who steal items worth a total of $750 or more over a period of six months. A single theft of a high-ticket item can be charged as “organized retail theft”; so can stealing dozens of bottles over a several weeks.

Ordinarily, shoplifting is handled by the Seattle Municipal Court, which has the option of moving cases to community court, a therapeutic option that provides access to services without requiring defendants to admit to a crime. (Davison got the court to make this option unavailable to those on her “high utilizers” list earlier this month, and advocates anticipate this will be just one of multiple steps to exclude certain offenders from less-punitive options.) Once a case is elevated to a felony, it goes across the street to the King County Courthouse, where the primary alternative to “mainstream” prosecution is drug court—a program that requires participants to get sober, attend treatment and recovery meetings, submit to frequent drug tests, and pay restitution, all while staying out of trouble for the duration of the program, which lasts a minimum of 10 months.

Despite his “failure to comply” with similar programs 22 times in the past, the prosecuting attorney’s office referred Alexander to drug court. Anita Khandelwal, the director of the King County Department of Public Defense, says drug court works well for people with deep community ties, an outside support system, and stable housing; it is designed to fail people who are homeless, still drinking or using heavily, and don’t have a supportive community to help them stay sober.

“In criminal court, it’s likely he’ll walk away with a conviction, incarceration, and another record of failing a court-based program,” Khandelwal said. “What we’re doing with this individual is more of the stuff that has already not worked for him.”

Leesa Manion, the chief of staff to King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg and a candidate for the position, argues that drug court “was designed precisely for individuals like [Alexander]—people who need help, people who are acting out because of this substance use disorder and need structure to be successful. I don’t think we should judge Mr. [Alexander] because he has not been successful in the past.” Manion said that, if elected, she would continue to send cases like Alexander’s to drug court.

” In criminal court, it’s likely he’ll walk away with a conviction, incarceration, and another record of failing a court-based program. What we’re doing with this individual is more of the stuff that has already not worked for him.”—King County Department of Public Defense director Anita Khandelwal

While waiting for Alexander to show up for his first arraignment date last month, I watched dozens of drug court participants face King County Superior Court Judge Mary Roberts, whose tough-love approach combined supportive comments about defendants’ progress with admonishments (and, in one case, jail time) to those who weren’t meeting the conditions outlined in the drug court handbook. “I’m glad that you’re taking responsibility for your actions,”  Roberts told a man who was caught taking cough syrup that contained alcohol, but added, “You knew what the consequences would be.” Continue reading “How Seattle’s Crackdown on Crime Ensnared a Homeless Man and Made His Struggle With Addiction Worse”

UW Can Keep Civilians Who Replaced Campus Cops, Choe Show Canceled, Dembowski Bows Out

1. The University of Washington prevailed earlier this month in a labor dispute with the union representing the officers of its campus police department, allowing it to move forward with a plan to the replace armed police officers in its residence halls with new, unarmed “campus safety responders” without going to the bargaining table. The decision by Washington’s Public Employee Relations Commission (PERC) could set the stage for other employers to shift some duties from sworn officers to unarmed civilian responders—a change that some in Seattle’s government see as a possible fix for the city’s shortage of sworn police officers.

After pressure mounted on the school’s administration in the summer of 2020 to reevaluate the role of armed police officers in campus security, UW president Ana Mari Cauce promised to expand the university’s existing civilian responder programs by adding a new team who could respond to non-criminal emergency calls, including welfare checks. Less than a year later, the university also opted to remove armed police patrols from its dorms, replacing them with a combination of in-house social workers and campus safety responders.

The rank-and-file police officers who previously patrolled the dorms objected to the new arrangement, filing an unfair labor practice complaint accusing the university of “skimming” some of their responsibilities to a new team of employees in violation of the university’s contract with their union.

PERC sided with the university, ruling that the decision to use civilians instead of sworn officers to patrol the dorms has a “limited impact” on the police officers themselves—an impact, they wrote, that is outweighed by UW’s “compelling interest” in rethinking how it approaches campus safety. According to the ruling, the change did not require UW to lay off or cut the pay of any police officers, nor did it reduce opportunities for the officers to work overtime. The PERC ruling also noted that UW has only hired four campus safety responders since January, resulting in hardly any change to who responds to emergency calls on campus. Between September of 2021 and the start of this month, sworn UW police officers received 205 dispatches to residence halls; the campus safety responders received only six.

The ruling could be significant in Seattle, where city council members and members of Mayor Bruce Harrell’s staff have expressed interest in shifting some responsibilities from sworn police officers to civilian units like the Community Service Officers (CSOs) and parking enforcement officers. Although the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG) has generally opposed reducing officers’ responsibilities, SPD’s ongoing staffing shortage has increased pressure on elected officials to find ways to allow SPD officers to focus on serious crimes by assigning more responsibilities to civilians.

2. King County Councilmember Rod Dembowski quietly bowed out of the race to replace King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg less than two months after he filed for candidacy in early January. Dembowski told PubliCola that he filed to “take a look at the race,” but he did not elaborate about his decision to drop out. The remaining candidates include the King County Prosecutor’s Office’s current chief of staff, Leesa Manion, as well as former deputy prosecuting attorney Stephan Thomas and current Federal Way Mayor Jim Ferrell.

3.KOMO TV, which is owned by the national conservative broadcasting conglomerate Sinclair Broadcast Group, fired reporter Jonathan Choe today after Choe posted flattering coverage of a rally by the Proud Boys, a white nationalist group, to protest the continued detention of those implicated in the January 6 attack on the US capitol.

Choe promoted the rally in a series of tweets that included a montage of protest footage set over a white nationalist anthem known as the “Männerbund,” which includes the lyrics, “In our own towns we’re foreigners now, our names are spat and cursed/ The headline smack of another attack, not the last and not the worst.” That tweet, which Choe later deleted, encouraged readers and KOMO viewers to come down and meet with the Proud Boys, who would stay on hand to “mingle and answer questions if anyone is interested in learning more about their cause and mission.”

In a second tweet, Choe praised the Proud Boys for being polite and allowing him to “record freely on public property without interference. No umbrellas or hands in my face.” The latter was a reference to Choe’s frequent claims that he is targeted by protesters or “antifa”. On his feed, Choe frequently tags Andy Ngo, a Twitter provocateur who has written sympathetically about the Proud Boys and has worked tirelessly to demonize “antifa” (which he characterizes, inaccurately, as an organized, violent group of militants) to his right-wing audience.

PubliCola independently confirmed Choe’s firing. David Neiwert, reporting for DailyKos, received a statement from KOMO saying the station “did not direct or approve Jonathan Choe’s decision to cover this weekend’s rally, nor did his work meet our editorial standards.”

Choe is best known in Seattle for his efforts to confront and elicit reactions from unsheltered people and their advocates, including mutual aid volunteers. His Twitter feed is an avalanche of footage showing people in crisis and commentary condemning homeless people for existing in public, including endless poverty porn-style videos of people living unsheltered.

Although KOMO has an official policy of “objectivity,” Choe’s feed overflows with over-the-top praise for city workers conducting sweeps of homeless encampments. (“GAME OVER,” he tweeted repeatedly during a recent sweep of tents across the street from City Hall). On many occasions, Choe has started on-camera confrontations with volunteers and activists working with unsheltered people, even identifying some to his readers (and tagging Ngo) as “antifa.” (Choe has blocked us on Twitter, along with many other local reporters following this story.)

Sinclair, which produced the infamous “Seattle Is Dying” series, expressed no public concerns that Choe’s coverage of homelessness was exploitative and misleading, nor that it put homeless people in danger and violated their right to privacy. For KOMO, advocating for white supremacy appears to have been a bridge too far; posting videos condemning homeless people for existing in public, apparently, was not.

—Paul Kiefer, Erica C. Barnett

PubliCola Interviews King County Prosecutor Candidate Leesa Manion

Leesa Manion headshotBy 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. Continue reading “PubliCola Interviews King County Prosecutor Candidate Leesa Manion”

Prosecutor Dan Satterberg to Retire, More Fallout From No-Bid Encampment Cleanup Deal, US Attorney Joins Davison Team

1. King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg announced on Friday that he will not seek reelection in 2022, bringing an end to 37-year career in the King County Prosecutor’s Office, including four terms as the elected prosecutor.

In the 15 years since he was first elected, Satterberg has gradually shifted the attention of his office toward alternatives to prosecution. Those efforts included supporting diversion programs for people arrested for drug offenses years before a state supreme court decision overturned Washington’s felony drug possession laws in February 2021. Under Satterberg’s leadership, the prosecutor’s office also launched a sentencing review unit as part of an effort to remedy excessively long prison sentences.

Under Satterberg, the prosecutor’s office has participated in a push to scale back the use of juvenile detention in the county, relying on both diversion programs and an overall decline in juvenile crime. However, Satterberg has opposed closing down the county’s juvenile jail, and has voiced skepticism about efforts to reform Washington’s juvenile sentencing laws. In December 2020, Satterberg tried to appeal a pair of Washington State Supreme Court decisions expanding judges’ discretion to consider the age and maturity of juvenile offenders as mitigating factors when sentencing or re-sentencing them; the US Supreme Court later declined to hear Satterberg’s appeal.

Satterberg’s support for diversion programs has drawn the ire of some law enforcement allies, who blame his increasing focus on alternatives to detention for a recent rise in violent crime. But criticism has come from both sides: During the 2018 election, he faced a challenge from public defender Daron Morris, who criticized Satterberg for participating in a county-wide crackdown on sex work.

Since the start of the pandemic, Satterberg’s office has faced a backlog of felony cases fueled by court closures and staffing shortages. At the same time, law enforcement agencies across King County referred nearly a quarter fewer felony cases to the prosecutor’s office in 2021 than the pre-pandemic average, adding to an overall decline in the number of charges the office files each month in court.

In the final year of his term, Satterberg plans to expand a diversion program for first-time property crime felonies to serve adults, in addition to those younger than 18.

Satterberg’s chief of staff, Leesa Manion, announced her intention to run for Satterberg’s position in November. Manion is the first person to announce their candidacy for the office, and she follows in Satterberg’s footsteps: Before he led the office, Satterberg was the chief of staff to the late King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng.

King County Councilmember Rod Dembowski also filed his candidacy for the position on Friday, as did Federal Way Mayor Jim Ferrell.

2. The Seattle Parks Department issued a violation and ordered re-training for the head of its encampment cleanup team after the employee approved a no-bid, no-contract deal to pay a company owned by a current city employee to remove trash from encampments, in violation of city contracting policy.

PubliCola learned of the violation from documents obtained through a records request. The notice of violation also raises questions about whether crew members for-owned company, Fresh Family LLC, paid its workers prevailing wages, a requirement for city contracts. According to a spokeswoman for the parks department, the prevailing wage for encampment cleanup crew members is $54.62 an hour; the department “is working to clarify whether Fresh Family failed to pay prevailing wages,” adding that “there was some discrepancy related to prevailing wages that SPR is working to address.”

Fresh Family’s owner, Debbie Wilson, is a former Parks Department employee who now works for City Light; the company received at least $434,000 in payments from the city over two months, according to invoices provided in response to PubliCola’s records request. The most recent invoice is for work performed on November 30, the day before PubliCola contacted Parks to ask about the company and three days before we ran a story about the unusual no-bid, no-contract deal.

Ordinarily, companies that do encampment cleanups are hired through what’s known as a blanket contract; when the Parks Department hires a company to remove an encampment or clean up garbage or other waste, they are required to choose from a list of companies that are included in this blanket contract.

The department can hire companies that are not on the list under one of two circumstances: If a contract is under $55,000 (which requires soliciting at least three bids), or if none of the companies on the list are available to do the work. Neither of these conditions were met when the city hired Fresh Family LLC to do encampment cleanup work during October and November.

According to the Parks Department spokeswoman, the department “will be providing this employee [Waters[ with a training that covers the full contracting process: vendor selection, contract creation, direct payment, coding, invoicing, and all city policies pertaining to the contracting process. This is a training that is given to staff periodically and again to specific staff when needed.”

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3. Seattle City Attorney Ann Davison announced on Friday that she has hired former US Attorney Brian Moran to help her office process a backlog of more than 4,000 misdemeanor cases and to advise her on “near term criminal priorities.”

Former President Donald Trump appointed Moran to serve as the US Attorney General for the Western District of Washington in 2019, with support from Washington Senators Patti Murray and Maria Cantwell during his confirmation process. At the request of the US Department of Justice, Moran resigned from his post in February 2021 alongside 54 other Trump-era US Attorneys.  Continue reading “Prosecutor Dan Satterberg to Retire, More Fallout From No-Bid Encampment Cleanup Deal, US Attorney Joins Davison Team”

Resentencing Hearings Begin to Address Some “Three Strikes” Life Sentences

Russell Harvey attends his resentencing hearing via Zoom on June 3, 2021.

By Paul Kiefer

At the end of an emotional hearing on Wednesday, Russell Harvey still looked nervous. The 60-year-old sat facing a webcam in an office at the Monroe Correctional Complex in Snohomish County—his beige uniform matching the empty wall behind him—as King County Superior Court Judge David Steiner signed the paperwork releasing Harvey after more than two decades in prison.

Just before Judge Steiner ended the hearing, Harvey leaned closer to the computer in front of him. “Thank you, Judge. I’m sure it was a tough decision.”

“It wasn’t,” Steiner replied.

Harvey is the second inmate in King County to be resentenced under a new Washington law that retroactively removes second-degree robbery from the list of offenses targeted by the state’s “three-strikes” statute, which imposes a life sentence without parole for so-called “persistent offenders.” In 1993, Washington became the first state in the country to adopt a three-strikes policy; at the time, the measure received broad bipartisan support.

But some Washington lawmakers are now trying to correct the long-term consequences of the “tough on crime” era, including by reconsidering the state’s harsh sentencing guidelines for nonviolent crimes. The bill that led to Harvey’s release, sponsored by Sen. Jeannie Darnielle (D-27, Tacoma), is only one element of the broader push to address excessive sentences, but for both incarcerated people and the King County Prosecutor’s Office, the new law is the culmination of more than a decade of advocacy.

“For a long time, you had to be able to prove that there were ‘exceptional’ circumstances to get someone released. And our office was arguing that life sentences for second-degree robbery were ‘exceptional’ in and of themselves—in a bad way.”—Carla Lee, King County Prosecutor’s Office

Twenty-four years ago, a King County Superior Court judge sentenced Harvey to life in prison after his third arrest for second-degree robbery, which—unlike other three-strikes offenses like rape and manslaughter—generally doesn’t involve a weapon or injury to another person. In the early years of his sentence, Harvey told the court, he repeatedly clashed with prison administrators and spent time in an “intensive management unit”—in other words, solitary confinement.

One of his trips to “the hole” brought him to breaking point, Harvey said. “I called my mom and I asked her what I should do,” he told the court in his opening remarks. “The disappointment in my mom’s voice—there’s no mistaking it. … She basically just hung up on me, right after she asked, ‘when are you going to learn?’ I didn’t want to be affecting people like that. That was when I hit rock bottom.” Harvey’s mental health suffered; according to his attorney, Susan Hacker, Harvey struggled through a series of “trials and errors” by prison medical staff who tried to prescribe him medication after diagnosing him with depression.

But in 2009, Harvey’s case caught the attention of the King County Prosecutor’s Office, which was assembling a list of inmates serving life sentences for three-strikes offenses involving at least one second-degree robbery with the goal of bringing their cases before Washington’s clemency board. That list grew to 45 names. Nearly two dozen received clemency, but Harvey was not among them.

Then, in 2020, the state legislature passed a law giving prosecutors the discretion to request resentencing for people whose original sentences no longer serve the “interest of justice.” In response, the King County Prosecutor’s Office created a sentence review unit and added Harvey’s name to a list of inmates eligible for re-sentencing. Largely because of COVID-19-related court delays, that resentencing effort also stalled, but Harvey received a third chance at release when the state legislature passed the new law that specifically affects inmates facing life in prison for three second-degree robberies.

Carla Lee, who leads the sentence review unit, told PubliCola that the newest resentencing law follows a model developed in King County since the prosecutor’s office first identified Harvey as a candidate for a reduced sentence. “For a long time, you had to be able to prove that there were ‘exceptional’ circumstances to get someone released,” she said. “And our office was arguing that life sentences for second-degree robbery were ‘exceptional’ in and of themselves—in a bad way. Our model has now been legislated, so other prosecutors now have to follow it.” Continue reading “Resentencing Hearings Begin to Address Some “Three Strikes” Life Sentences”

Year-Old Resentencing Effort Languishes Due to COVID Delays, Inconsistent Standards

Stafford Creek Corrections Center, Aberdeen, Washington (Washington Department of Corrections)

By Paul Kiefer

Last spring, the state legislature passed a measure allowing county prosecutors to ask judges to resentence inmates whose sentences “no longer advance the interest of justice.” The lawmakers who drafted the bill cast it as a tool to mitigate decades of harsh sentencing—and, they hoped, a way to recognize rehabilitation as the cornerstone of Washington’s criminal justice system.

When ‘tough-on-crime’ laws came into fashion across the United States in the ’80s and ’90s, Washington was no exception. In 1984, the state legislature dissolved Washington’s parole board, cutting off a key path to early release for inmates in the state; only thirteen other states have abolished parole. Most other options for early release are less flexible: inmates with clean disciplinary records can shave off fifteen percent of their sentence, and the state’s Clemency and Pardons Board hears two or three dozen cases per year, though they rarely grant clemency. More recent efforts to pass resentencing laws—including the legislation that passed last spring—are an attempt to open new paths to reduce sentences that no longer seem appropriate.

A month after the bill passed, Kimothy Wynn wrote a letter to Pierce County Prosecutor Mary Robnett asking her to reconsider his sentence.

Wynn, now 43, has spent the past two decades in prison serving a 38-year sentence for a gang-related shooting in a Tacoma alley in 1999.

In his letter to Robnett, Wynn wrote that he believed that the sentencing standards in place during his trial were excessive. He had spent half his life in prison for a serious mistake—one he regretted but that hadn’t injured anyone, since the targets of the shooting escaped unharmed. But because inmates in Washington don’t have the option of parole, Wynn wrote, he never had a chance to demonstrate that he deserved a a second chance. The new law, he told Robnett, could be his chance to join his wife and stepchildren on the outside. “Please let my case be one of the positive examples of why this bill was written,” he wrote.

“Understandably, the people writing [requests for resentencing] are unclear about whether they’re eligible. don’t blame them for giving it a shot.”—Kitsap County Prosecutor Chad Enright

In October, Wynn received a reply from the Pierce County Prosecutor’s Office. Though he met most of their criteria to be eligible for resentencing, a review committee declined Wynn’s request.

In the past year, hundreds of inmates across Washington have sent similar letters to county prosecutors. Most were rejected outright; many others, including in King County, are still awaiting a prosecutor’s decision. Since the passage of the 2020 law, SB 6164, fewer than a dozen people have been resentenced as a result.

The bill’s original sponsor, Sen. Manka Dhingra (D-45, Bellevue), told PubliCola that she didn’t have specific outcome in mind when she drafted the measure; the goal, she wrote, was to “see who would benefit” from the law in its preliminary form, and then analyze the results to shape future legislation. But Wynn and other inmates saw the law as a reason to be hopeful, not a preliminary test of prosecutors’ willingness to reconsider past sentences. “This past year has been heartbreaking, sitting here in prison hearing person after person getting denied for [resentencing] when I know they are deserving of this chance,” he wrote in a letter to PubliCola. “[Yet] another year that criminal justice and sentencing reform is just talked about and never anything done…”

There doesn’t seem to be a singular reason the bill has had such a negligible impact so far.

Prosecutors in many of the state’s smallest counties, such as Skamania, Stevens and Pend Oreille, haven’t gotten around to creating their own eligibility criteria for resentencing and instead review cases individually; those prosecutors have only received a handful of resentencing requests, none of which they approved. Continue reading “Year-Old Resentencing Effort Languishes Due to COVID Delays, Inconsistent Standards”

What’s Next in King County’s Path to Ending Youth Detention?

By Paul Kiefer

At the end of a Thursday in early March, 28 teenagers sat in the King County juvenile detention center on Alder Street in Seattle’s Central District. One had arrived in the facility earlier that day; another had spent nearly 640 days in detention for a first-degree rape charge.

The Patricia H. Clark Children and Family Justice Center, which opened quietly in February 2020, replaced the county’s aging Youth Services Center. The new justice center has 156 beds, and King County Executive Dow Constantine has said the county doesn’t intend to fill them all. Last July, Constantine made a commitment to guide the county toward an end to youth detention by 2025, promising to transition the new detention center to “other uses” and “[shift] public dollars away from systems that are rooted in oppression and into those that maintain public health and safety, and help people on a path to success.”

The new center was built next to the decaying, 69-year-old Youth Services Center. When it opened, the county offered tours to show off the pastel-colored walls,  art collection and brightly lit common areas that set it apart from the old facility. The courtrooms in the old center were cramped and gave little privacy to young defendants, while the new facility’s courtrooms offer more breathing room. The new building includes a gym, a clinic, a library and a spiritual center, as well as a room stocked with donated clothes for young people to wear to court appearances or job interviews. But the windowless cells and steel doors are a reminder that the purpose of the new building is unchanged.

“If you look at some of the young people who are engaged in some of these most serious offenses, I have some serious questions about how we how we’re going to ensure public safety and also have no detention facility at all. It may be something that looks very much like detention, but are we going to call it something different and claim that we’re at zero youth detention?” Jimmy Hung, King County Prosecutor’s Office

The final steps toward the goal of ending youth detention by 2025 will require the county to agree to non-detention-based alternatives that can support young people in the most dire circumstances—including people for whom the county doesn’t see a space in the existing restorative justice programs.

It will also depend on how the entities guiding the process—both in county government and in the nonprofit sector—define the “end of youth detention.”

Of the 28 young people incarcerated in King County on March 4, nearly half were charged as adults for for first-degree assault, attempted murder or murder charges; they will move to adult detention centers after their 18th birthdays. Held alongside them were others held for more minor crimes, including one young person charged with misdemeanor assault and another charged with possession of a stolen vehicle.

“There are a handful of cases where someone might scratch their head and ask, why that kid is being held for a misdemeanor,” said Jimmy Hung, who heads the juvenile division at the King County Prosecutor’s Office. “What’s listed their charge provides the legal basis for a judge to deprive them of their freedom. But if you were to have access to the social file, these kids have multiple prior cases in the system.” Many have unstable housing and are dealing with mental health and substance abuse issues—”the kinds of dysfunction that may prompt the judge to decide that there are no better options, and that detention is the safest place for this young person right now,” Hung said.

Hung believes that the county’s decision to hold those young people in jail instead of referring them to service providers means that all other aspects of our society have failed, and that “the failure is presenting itself when the best option is locking the kid up in detention.” Bringing an end to that practice, Hung said, will require the county to keep scaling up the services it can provide to young people in crisis.

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Allan Nance, the director of King County’s Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention, agrees. “If we are going to get to zero, that means that we have to control the front door,” he said. “Controlling the front door means working upstream: addressing inequities in schools, in housing and in access to health care.”

Nance added that there are ways to offer treatment and support to young people after they wind up before a court—in his mind, the detention center is not a catchment basin for young people who can’t be rehabilitated without being isolated. But the process of closing the detention center, he said, requires a “a commitment to not only serve the wellbeing of the young people, but to do it in a way that doesn’t compromise community safety.” Continue reading “What’s Next in King County’s Path to Ending Youth Detention?”

Report on SPD Destruction of DNA Evidence Reveals Serious Problems in Department’s Evidence Storage

SPD Evidence Storage Warehouse in January 2018

By Paul Kiefer

More than a year ago, the Seattle City Attorney’s Office (CAO) contacted the Seattle Police Department about a backlog of post-conviction DNA samples held in the department’s evidence warehouse. SPD had started storing DNA samples—each enclosed in a manila envelope and tagged with a case number—in their warehouse in 2016 as a temporary solution to an obscure glitch in state law.

Seattle law requires the city to collect DNA samples in a broader array of situations than state law requires. At the time, the Washington State Patrol wasn’t permitted to enter DNA samples collected from people convicted of certain crimes—particularly sex offenses—into the state’s DNA database, which is used to cross-reference DNA samples from crime scenes to identify suspects. To save the samples from the state patrol’s incinerator, SPD volunteered to store the existing samples beginning in 2016 while the legislature and city council resolved the issue.

By 2019, the state patrol was once again able to accept DNA samples from Seattle—the CAO only needed to gather the stored samples and hand them off to the state for processing and cataloging.

But when SPD’s evidence unit went looking through the warehouse, they discovered a problem: a year earlier, they had mistakenly destroyed 107 of the DNA samples, or 16 percent of the total samples in SPD’s storage, along with evidence from an unknown number of homicide investigations.

After their discovery, SPD contacted Seattle’s Office of the Investigator General (OIG) to review the policies and practices that led to the destruction of the DNA samples. The OIG’s final report on the incident, released in late December, revealed that the mistake was a symptom of much more widespread problems in SPD’s evidence collection, storage and disposal policies. That confluence of problems has left the department with a patchwork of evidence storage systems across its four precincts and a warehouse filled from floor to ceiling.

The evidence warehouse, tucked away on a side street in SoDo, has been a worsening headache for the department for nearly a decade. In November 2020, it was at 94 percent capacity. And even that was an improvement from three years earlier, when pallets of evidence stacked in the warehouse’s aisles prompted the Seattle fire marshal to find the building in violation of the city’s fire code. Some of that evidence may be significant for ongoing criminal investigations; in other cases (including homicide, sex offenses and stalking), the King County Prosecutor’s Office asks SPD to keep evidence after the conclusion of an investigation in case it becomes useful for prosecuting future crimes. But it also includes plenty of seized items that serve very little investigative purpose, including a fleet of bicycles that crowded the aisles alongside the pallets.

SPD doesn’t hold the precincts to any standard for evidence storage, leaving OIG auditors to discover that one precinct—which they left unnamed in the report—eschewed evidence lockers and security cameras in favor of a filing cabinet with no security cameras.

According to the members of SPD’s evidence unit cited in the report, one reason for the overcrowding is that some officers weren’t sufficiently trained on what to collect as physical evidence, as opposed to taking photographs or samples. The OIG report pointed to a shopping cart held at the warehouse as an example of evidence that could easily be replaced with a photograph to save space. Evidence unit staff also pointed out that officers and detectives themselves are responsible for determining which older evidence no longer needs to be in storage; because those officers and detectives rarely have time to revisit their old case files and fill out the paperwork to release or destroy evidence, the evidence unit couldn’t clear enough space to make way for new evidence.

But the fire code violation jolted the evidence unit into action. Under direction from the fire marshal to clear the warehouse’s aisles by February 2018, the evidence unit’s leadership directed staff to create a “batch list” of evidence related to cases from 2013 to 2016: a short list of stored items that the evidence unit thought it could destroy without undermining any ongoing criminal investigations. Facing a storage crisis, the evidence unit bypassed the requirement that detectives and officers sign off on the destruction of evidence; as a result, SPD detectives didn’t know that the evidence unit marked DNA samples related to their old case files for destruction. According to the OIG report, evidence unit staffers didn’t check SPD’s case file database, which would have shown them that the department was storing the DNA evidence for future processing.

The OIG also discovered that during the rush to clear space in the evidence warehouse, SPD’s evidence unit had also moved 92 pallets of evidence—much of it gathered by the homicide unit—to the adjacent vehicle storage garage.

Most of the destroyed DNA evidence came from people convicted of harassment, sexual exploitation and patronizing sex workers; a smaller amount was connected to people convicted of assault or stalking. SPD’s own auditing team also found that the purge had destroyed an unknown amount of evidence from “reasonably recent” homicide cases.

The OIG report, written by auditor Matt Miller, did not excoriate SPD’s evidence unit for their mistakes, though Miller did write in the report that even in a crisis, the unit should have “establish[ed] proper safeguards” to avoid carelessly destroying valuable evidence.

During its review of SPD evidence collection and storage practices, the OIG also visited the department’s five precincts, each of which has been storing evidence temporarily since 2019, when SPD adopted a new records-management system that requires a member of the evidence unit staff to physically place evidence in the warehouse. While officers used to deliver evidence to the warehouse themselves, they now have to store it in their precincts until a member of the evidence unit is available to pick it up; as a consequence, the precinct captains have each developed their own evidence storage areas. SPD doesn’t hold the precincts to any standard for evidence storage, leaving OIG auditors to discover that one precinct—which they left unnamed in the report—eschewed evidence lockers and security cameras in favor of a filing cabinet with no security cameras. Continue reading “Report on SPD Destruction of DNA Evidence Reveals Serious Problems in Department’s Evidence Storage”

King County Appeals Ruling That Allows Lighter Sentencing for Juveniles to US Supreme Court

By Paul Kiefer

Last Thursday, King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg filed a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court appealing a pair of Washington State Supreme Court decisions expanding judges’ discretion to consider the age and maturity of juvenile offenders when sentencing or re-sentencing them.

Satterberg argues that overturning the decisions would restore the proper balance of power between the state legislature, prosecutors and judges and reduce sentencing disparities between different parts of the state. The ACLU and criminal defense attorneys disagree, saying that the rulings have allowed judges to impose sentences in line with new research about children’s brain development, and to redress ongoing prison sentences that were excessive to begin with.

Though Satterberg is challenging decisions the state court issued in September, the true target of his appeal is a landmark 2017 state Supreme Court decision that courts, attorneys and prosecutors—including Satterberg —have already acknowledged as case law. The appeal caught many juvenile justice reform advocates off guard, re-igniting a debate about the limits and fairness of age-conscious sentencing.

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We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different. We cover Seattle and King County on a budget that is funded entirely and exclusively by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

Being fully independent means that we cover the stories we consider most interesting and newsworthy, based on our own news judgment and feedback from readers about what matters to them, not what advertisers or corporate funders want us to write about. It also means that we need your support. So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

The past three years of litigation about Washington’s juvenile sentencing laws hinges on six armed robberies on Halloween night in 2012. The culprits were a group of Tacoma teenagers, and their haul was mostly candy and cell phones. Nobody was injured, but because one of the teenagers threatened trick-or-treaters with a gun, the Pierce County Superior court charge two of the older members of the group—17-year-old Zyion Houston-Sconiers and 16-year-old Treson Lee Roberts—as adults. They received sentences of 31 and 26 years, respectively.

The lengthy sentences were the result of a Washington State law known as “automatic decline,” which requires prosecutors to charge 16- and 17-year-olds as adults if they commit a serious crime, such as aggravated assault or murder, or already have a criminal record. Unlike charges in juvenile courts, the state attaches mandatory minimum sentences to adult charges, so while the Pierce County judge who sentenced Houston-Sconiers and Roberts acknowledged that the sentences were unfair, his hands were tied by state law.

Houston-Sconiers and Roberts appealed their sentences to the Washington State Supreme Court, arguing that judges should be required to consider a juvenile defendant’s youth and immaturity when making sentencing decisions, regardless of the defendant’s crimes. The court agreed, ruling that Washington judges are required to consider a juvenile defendant’s age during a sentencing hearing in adult court, and as a result Houston-Sconiers and Roberts also received shortened sentences. Because the Pierce County prosecutor didn’t appeal the court’s decision, it became case law.

Satterberg argues that the state court’s rulings in Houston-Sconiers, Ali, and Domingo-Cornelio allow sentencing judges to “impose no jail time at all for juvenile offenders who commit the most serious crimes,” stripping the legislature’s power to determine mandatory sentences that “reflect the will of the citizenry.”

Many juvenile justice reform advocates celebrated the decision, known as Washington v. Houston-Sconiers, as a landmark victory in the fight for fairer juvenile sentencing in Washington. Tukwila criminal defense attorney Emily Gause, who will represent one of the juvenile defendants before the US Supreme Court when it hears Satterberg’s appeal, told PubliCola that Houston-Sconiers prompted courts to formally acknowledge the science of brain development and adjust sentences accordingly.

Among other impacts, Gause said defense attorneys are now less likely to encourage juvenile clients charged as adults to take plea deals to avoid lengthy mandatory sentences. Now, she said, “Judges can really craft the right sentence for the specific facts of a particular case. Now the details about the role that a child played in a criminal act actually matter, not just the rubber stamp of what they were convicted of.”

Continue reading “King County Appeals Ruling That Allows Lighter Sentencing for Juveniles to US Supreme Court”

Despite Months of Arrests and Impoundments, the Car Brigade Is Still Protecting Seattle Protesters

Seattle Police officers impound a Car Brigade vehicle on Capitol Hill on October 3

By Paul Kiefer

Late at night on September 11, during the worst of the past summer’s wildfire smoke, a driver pulled over in a Bothell parking lot. Less than an hour earlier, the driver – who asked to remain anonymous because of pending felony charges – had been a part of the Car Brigade, a group of drivers who use their cars to protect Black Lives Matter protesters from attacks.

That night, the group had formed a protective perimeter around a relatively small and subdued protest march in Seattle. Driving at a walking speed, the motley crew of luxury cars, nondescript sedans and massive SUVs maneuvered to keep other drivers from entering alleyways, parking lot exits and intersections.

After months of practice, angry honking from inconvenienced drivers doesn’t phase the Car Brigade. The protest ended with no police in sight, so the drivers went their separate ways, expecting to make it home without issue. But when he reached Bothell, the driver saw police lights in his rear-view mirror. “There was never a siren,” he said. “It seemed like they had just silently followed me all the way to Bothell.”

“SPD thinks drivers are somehow involved in organizing the marches or have a hand in what marchers do,” one driver told PubliCola. “Really, when I’m driving, I don’t even know where we’re turning next.”

To his surprise, the officer who approached his window was from the Seattle Police Department. According to the driver, the officer “told me I had three seconds to open my window or he would smash it. I didn’t really have time to react or think. I was still trying to remember where the door handle was when another officer walked up and smashed the window. The funny thing was that my doors were unlocked anyway.”

That night, the driver was booked into the King County Jail for allegedly obstructing a public officer at a protest several days earlier. He was released only a few hours later, but SPD had impounded his car and was waiting for a warrant to search it. Without his cell phone—which SPD had also seized—the driver spent the early hours of Saturday morning searching for some way to make his way to his home in a suburb east of Seattle. “I’ve never been so happy to see a yellow cab,” he said.

The arrest in Bothell was not an isolated incident: between August and mid-October, arrests of Car Brigade members were an almost weekly phenomenon. In total, SPD detained drivers on more than a dozen occasions and impounded 13 drivers’ cars; some, like the driver arrested in Bothell in September, were arrested more than once.

Incident reports and search warrants obtained by PubliCola offer a glimpse at what might lay behind the arrests: A larger SPD investigation into the Car Brigade’s connections to property damage and arson at last summer’s protests, driven by the department’s belief that the volunteer drivers are not good Samaritans, but accomplices who provide cover and support for property damage, arson and other crimes.

Five Car Brigade drivers who spoke to PubliCola believe that SPD has an ulterior motive for the arrests, impoundments and investigation. They describe SPD’s treatment of the Car Brigade as a “scare tactic” intended to punish drivers for protecting marchers, undermine marchers’ safety, and finally bring an end to the nightly marches. And the tactic may be working: drivers say that a dwindling number of drivers are willing to risk losing their vehicles, and potentially face felony charges, in order to protect protesters.

SPD did not respond to questions about specific arrests or the broader investigation, so the details of arrests included in this story reflect the drivers’ own accounts, as well as SPD incident reports.

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The Car Brigade formed earlier this year in the wake of the the July 4 attack on I-5 that killed Summer Taylor and injured Diaz Love. In the weeks that followed, one organizer told PubliCola, marches were flooded with volunteer drivers. “There were 40 or 50 drivers a night,” she recalled, “but it was chaos. The only coordination came from one person running from car to car to relay directions.” The playbook the Car Brigade now uses was the brainchild of a group of former marchers and new volunteers, she said. The team developed nicknames, a weekly driving schedule and an emergency fund to cover gas and window replacements; by August, the Car Brigade was a well-oiled machine.

Over those months, the Car Brigade drivers maintain, their presence at marches has served one purpose. “What we do is protect protesters – that’s the entire reason we’re there,” the driver arrested in Bothell said. Continue reading “Despite Months of Arrests and Impoundments, the Car Brigade Is Still Protecting Seattle Protesters”