The future of public safety is at stake
September 21, 2022
One of the cornerstones of public safety in the Seattle metro area is the King County Prosecutor’s Office. While city attorneys such as Ann Davison pursue misdemeanor crime, the county prosecutor handles felony cases such as violent assault, murder, rape, and serious drug offenses.
At least that’s what they’re supposed to do.
We’ve reported previously on the ongoing tension between the prosecutor’s office and many King County cities experiencing increased crime. Rather than crack down on offenders, the prosecutor’s office is pursuing a dangerous social experiment based on fringe ideological beliefs that treats criminals as the real victims.
But as Seattle Times Editorial Board member Alex Fryer notes in a recent opinion piece, there are other significant problems affecting the prosecutor’s office that goes beyond internal workplace dysfunction. With current Prosecutor Dan Satterberg opting not to run for reelection this November, these are challenges that face the two candidates. They are Federal Way Mayor Jim Farrell, former King County senior deputy prosecutor, and King County Prosecutor Chief of Staff Leesa Manion, who has never prosecuted a case.
It’s important people understand the stakes involved. We’re not talking about an ordinary corporate office, where dysfunction means inefficiency and potential delays meeting project deadlines that requires you to hire an outside consulting company to put you back on track.
When the prosecutor’s office isn’t functioning and doesn’t do its job correctly, public safety is undermined, and lives and small businesses are put at risk.
As we’ve highlighted, one source of dysfunction is the rift between old-guard members who still see criminals as criminals, while the newer deputy prosecutors hold to the beliefs that give rise to ideas like the King County’s Restorative Community Pathways (RCP) program, where rather than face punishment first-time juvenile offenders receive social services. The program explicitly states the criminal youth should run it and the adults should be accountable to them.
The Times’ Fryer writes that this disinterest in prosecuting crime was noted in a resignation email sent in July by Senior Deputy Prosecutor Jessica Berliner, who had worked at the office for 23 years:
“We are already making filing, resolution and staffing decisions on violent crimes based on volume and political expediency. I fear that in the future, due to lack of resources, skill and leadership, we will simply not be filing the cases we have in the past.”
As Fryer notes, the number of open cases in King County Superior court has increased from 3,600 in March 2020 to 4,500 – at one point in 2021 it was more than 6,100. One can only wonder if this backlog combined with lackluster enthusiasm for prosecuting is what led to them accepting a plea bargain with a man initially charged with second-degree rape of a female minor in 2019. Instead, he got a slap on the wrist and was released the day of his sentencing after having served barely a year in jail and while under investigating for a similar rape of another underage girl. He later went on to commit a deadly assault mere hours after his release this summer.
Not all of this is due to the prosecutor’s office. King County judges have been instructed in judicial training sessions conducted by outside activists to rule against prosecutors, who then must decide whether the case warrants an appeal on every decision made.
Nevertheless, the question is what the county will do moving forward to resolve the cases and how it will treat felony cases moving forward.
The crisis, Fryer correctly points out, is that “there is no consensus about what justice means, even by the people who work there.”
This is a question voters should be asking of whoever intends to take over as prosecutor. Fryer argues that under former King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng “public service meant standing up for the victim and the community.”
That clearly is not the case anymore. Victim statements aren’t read in court, and victims aren’t consulted when prosecutors accept plea bargains. Instead, programs are set up to help offenders avoid jailtime under the presumption that they were arrested due to institutional oppression and discrimination.
The definition of “justice” the office takes on will determine which cases are prioritized, if charges are filed at all, and how prosecutors press their case. It will send a message to criminals whether King County is a place where you receive appropriate to the law as written and the severity of the circumstances, not through lenient or systems constructed outside the legal system entirely.
If someone who aspires to take over as prosecutor doesn’t understand the basic concept of justice as protecting the innocent and punishing the guilty, then they’re not fit to lead the prosecutor’s office and certainly not the right kind of leadership needed to navigate this crisis.
Last fall’s election of Ann Davison as Seattle’s city attorney, who ran on a message of cracking down on petty crime, showed that Seattle voters want to restore public safety and not undermine it further.
It’s a message the two candidates running for county prosecutor would do well to heed.