Era-defining King County prosecutor race spurs debate on crime, reform

Federal Way Mayor Jim Ferrell traces his campaign for King County prosecutor back to the day his city’s police brass ran into his office and plopped a presentation on his desk.

The PowerPoint revealed the office of retiring Prosecutor Dan Satterberg was launching a program for many youth accused of crimes, including some first-time felonies. Instead of prosecuting the kids, Satterberg’s office would refer them to a consortium of community groups tasked with both helping them and holding them accountable.

Punctuating the December presentation, prepared by a deputy prosecutor, was a meme of a dog in a room engulfed by flames. “This is fine,” read a dialogue bubble.

The point wasn’t clear, but to Ferrell it seemed flip and, along with other parts of the presentation, disrespectful to law enforcement hit hard by an ongoing crime wave. He calls the PowerPoint “incredibly offensive,” with a bombshell disclosure about a program he considers far too lax.

Such is the amped-up tone of his campaign against Leesa Manion, Satterberg’s longtime chief of staff, whom he tars as part of a regime that’s gone overboard on social justice reform and desperately needs a “reset.”

Manion, who claims overseeing reforms as a key accomplishment, says Ferrell has been away from the legal system so long — he quit his prosecutor’s job in 2013 to become mayor — that he’s out of touch with current standards. “What has evolved is the notion that a modern, effective criminal justice system can address both crime and root causes,” she said.

She and Ferrell are squaring off in the first open King County prosecutor race since 1978. That’s when Norm Maleng ran and won, beginning a decadeslong reign that ended when he suffered a fatal heart attack in 2007 and Satterberg, his chief of staff, took over.

The new prosecutor will face inextricable, era-defining problems.

For starters, there’s a backlog of 4,500 felony cases and a crushing workload brought about by court restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and crime spike. Last year saw a 70% jump in shooting victims countywide, for example, compared to the previous four-year average.

Arguably even trickier is managing often-conflicting community demands to both clamp down on crime and heed the growing call for law enforcement reform after the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd.

“I don’t know what the community wants out of the prosecutor anymore,” Satterberg said, ceding that question to his successor, to be elected in an all-mail election. (Ballots must be postmarked by Nov. 8 or returned by 8 p.m. that day to a county elections drop box.)

That person will also have to contend with low morale among similarly perplexed rank-and-file prosecutors.

“We were so used to wearing the white hat. We were the good guys,” said Stephanie Sato, an attorney who left the prosecutor’s office in June. “Then all of a sudden, things are shifting.”

Prosecutors in the trenches are hearing they’re contributing to mass incarceration and racial injustice — a message sometimes echoed by office leaders and internal reformers, as at least a few see it, judging by interviews and interoffice emails.

Sato, who last worked in the human resources department, said she left because she didn’t know how to support prosecutors “without turning the clock backwards.”

Manion’s supporters say that’s what Ferrell is trying to do.

“Her opponent is beating one drum: the revolving door, we’re not prosecuting enough crimes … That’s the kind of stuff we were talking about in the ’80s and ’90s,” said former U.S. Attorney for Western Washington Mike McKay, one of several former top-level prosecutors advising Manion.

Ferrell’s supporters say Manion lacks criminal case experience and urgency to deal with the county’s house-on-fire public safety problems.

Mike Mansanarez, president of the King County Police Officers Guild, which along with the Seattle police and county corrections officer unions has endorsed Ferrell, said residents want to know what can be done. “And we have no answers.”

Almost wanting to cry

Ferrell, 56, says if he hadn’t become a prosecutor, he would have been a history professor. Books about American presidents line his mayoral office. A photo on the wall shows Winston Churchill walking on a British navy ship.

“He’s at war. He’s at sea. He’s alone,” said Ferrell, explaining why he told his wife he wanted the picture in his office if he became mayor.

Ferrell, however, really wanted to become a prosecutor. Raised by a single mom after his dad, an executive, died of a heart attack, Ferrell went to Gonzaga University Law School and then became a Renton city prosecutor. He tried for three years to get a job in Maleng’s office before succeeding in 1998. “I almost wanted to cry,” he said.

Ferrell said he stayed there for almost 16 years, prosecuting thousands of criminal cases and, for a time, supervising prosecutors in a new misdemeanor domestic violence court. While the prosecutor’s office deals mainly with felonies, it handles misdemeanors in unincorporated King County as well as all juvenile misdemeanors countywide.

“It’s really about the pursuit of truth and justice,” Ferrell said of prosecuting.

He also has a strict sense of fairness, citing that principle as the reason why, as mayor, he’s required Federal Way employees to report to work in person when COVID restrictions eased last year. Since police and many other city employees can’t work from home, he said, no one should.

Looking for a new challenge, Ferrell became mayor after nine years on the Federal Way City Council, a part-time position he filled while working as a prosecutor.

Along the way, he switched party affiliation. He had been a Republican but felt out of sync with the party as it moved to the right. He favors abortion and gay rights, labor and environmental causes. One day, about a decade ago, he said it hit him: “I’m a Democrat.”

State Democratic Party Chair Tina Podlodowski questions that, pointing to Ferrell’s support from conservatives like Fremont real estate magnate and Donald Trump supporter Suzie Burke. The prosecutor’s race is nonpartisan, but the state party has denied Ferrell access to its database of voter information while offering it to Manion, a Democrat.

Ferrell is resentful, yet acknowledges disagreement with fellow Democrats over law enforcement issues. He criticizes, for instance, a recently adopted Democrat-supported state law restricting whom police can pursue.

If he becomes prosecutor, Ferrell said he would move aggressively to triage backlogged cases and review standards for filing charges. He noted the prosecutor’s office used to charge people suspected of stealing more than $750 with felony theft — the state standard — but now uses a $2,500 threshold.

Manion said the office changed its standard in 2008 after decades of inflation but now works with Seattle City Attorney Ann Davison’s office to file felony charges against people suspected in repeat incidents by considering the cumulative value of stolen items.

Ferrell envisions changing the county’s standard to somewhere between $750 and $2,500.

He would also rework the juvenile program that got him into the race, known as Restorative Community Pathways, and a similar Community Diversion Program for adults launched last month.

He said he believes in diversion programs, which offer alternatives to traditional prosecution and incarceration, but objects to what he calls a “real departure” from diversion programs he knows. That’s largely because prosecutors don’t file charges before referring people to nonprofits, so there’s no case number or judicial oversight.

“The whole point of diversion is you don’t go in front of a judge,” countered Satterberg, who has endorsed his chief of staff.

Such programs, designed to avoid the harms of going through the criminal legal system, like barriers to jobs and housing, are not new to Satterberg’s office. In 2011, for instance, it began participating in the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, referring people accused of low-level crimes to substance-abuse treatment and social services — and attracting national attention.

“I’ve had some concerns about LEAD,” Ferrell said, suggesting he wasn’t intimately familiar with the program because it was gearing up when he left the prosecutor’s office. If elected, he said, “that’s one of the things I’m going to do, take a hard look at it.”

Tapped for a top job

When Manion was 4, her grandmother threw her mother out of the house. “That was the last day my brother and I saw her for 25 years,” she said.

As Manion, 53, sees it now, race had a lot to do with it. Her mother is Korean, and met her white father when he was a U.S. Army soldier stationed in Korea. He moved his wife and children to his parents’ Kentucky home, living apart while still in the Army. His mom didn’t approve of his wife, and they argued. according to Manion.

She says that background has given her a commitment to speaking up for victims and marginalized people, while teaching her about forgiveness. Her grandmother lovingly helped raise her, teaching her the value of independence and a good work ethic, and “is more than the sum of her worst mistakes,” Manion notes on her campaign website.

Manion joined the civil division of the prosecutor’s office straight out of Seattle University Law School and took one case to trial, involving illegal timber cutting on county land.

Four years into her career, Maleng tapped her to be his deputy chief of staff. Maleng isn’t around to explain why, but Satterberg said Manion was the natural choice to be his second-in-command when he took over.

“She knew everything about the office and could handle the stuff that wasn’t high-profile but was critical,” like budgets and human relations. She also showed much-needed skill working with community members, Satterberg said.

With Manion at his side, Satterberg began to build a reputation as a progressive prosecutor, part of a nationwide movement. He supported clemency and resentencing for people he believed were too harshly sentenced to life under the state’s “three strikes” law, and Manion oversaw an early review of cases. (Ferrell said he didn’t take lightly his role prosecuting some “three strikes” cases and showed little enthusiasm for revisiting them, but added he wants to establish a unit devoted to flawed convictions.)

Manion also helped launch the 180 Program for youth in 2011. A precursor to the current, controversial youth diversion program, it allowed kids to avoid criminal charges if they participated in a workshop aimed at inspiring them to chart a new path.

While most cases referred to Restorative Community Pathways involve alleged misdemeanors, the program expands the number of eligible allegations to include more felonies than the previous program, a dozen in all, and aims to take a deeper look at kids’ needs and behaviors.

Manion said she understands some cases eligible for the new program sound scary, like second-degree robbery. But, she said, “In the juvenile world, that is one person pushing down another person and taking a backpack.” (The prosecutor’s office referred to the program two kids accused of gun possession, but made such cases ineligible after blowback from Ferrell and other South King County mayors.)

“I care about victims,” Manion said, adding she wouldn’t support the program if she thought it would put residents at risk. She also noted Restorative Community Pathways, which was unanimously allocated $6.2 million by the Metropolitan King County Council, offers victims quick restitution and resources to counter the harm they’ve suffered.

In Manion’s view, the diversion program and others like it are crime-fighting tools: From 1996 to 2019, as the use of diversion grew, the number of alleged juvenile crimes referred to the prosecutor’s office dropped 83%.

When asked about other strategies she’d want to implement, Manion stressed collaboration. For instance, she’d like to see prosecutors, public defenders and others work together to help people facing involuntary treatment petitions alleging they present a harm to themselves or others. Revamping the adversarial court process would take a change in state law.

Manion also wants to build better relationships with police, in part by attending a monthly meeting of the county’s top law enforcement administrators. Satterberg has sent his chief criminal deputy in his stead — a mistake, Manion said. “You can’t work together if you’re not in the room.”

Another Satterberg mistake, in Manion’s telling: failing to use his bully pulpit to condemn especially corrosive crimes, like fentanyl dealing. Manion said she would, acknowledging: “We’re hearing a cry for people to feel safe again.”

Voters may consider whether she’s equipped to make that happen, given her remove from hands-on criminal work. Ferrell repeats time and again that she has not personally handled even one criminal case.

A veteran deputy prosecutor, who asked not be named out of fear of repercussions, said Manion’s views come from a “10,000-foot” perspective. “I often question whether she understands the work.”

For her part, Manion said Maleng, who also came out of the office’s civil division, only tried one case for the agency, “and I don’t think anyone would have said to Norm, ‘You are not qualified to hold office.’”

The prosecutor’s race is partly a referendum on continuity. But it’s also about digging out of the present and charting a path forward.

Tanya Woo and Gary Lee volunteer for different watch groups in the Chinatown International District, and tell stories of unchecked assaults on older adults and rampant shoplifting.

What to do about it is the question. Woo would like to see more community-based solutions, Lee tougher prosecution. When interviewed in early October, both had yet to pick a candidate.

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