King County prosecutor: Ramping up convictions isn’t ‘panacea’ for public safety crisis

Mar 8, 2022, 3:24 PM | Updated: Mar 9, 2022, 6:42 am
Third Avenue and Pine Street in Seattle. (Credit Dennis Hamilton via Flickr)
(Credit Dennis Hamilton via Flickr)

Whether it’s denoted as hotspot policing, emphasis patrolling, the 9 ½ Block Strategy, or Operation New Day, the buck with a tough-on-crime mayoral administration stops with prosecuting criminals, and the King County prosecutor is cautioning that he may not have all the answers.

In response to growing community alarm at the state of crime in Seattle’s Little Saigon and the downtown corridor, Mayor Bruce Harrell— as part of his “Operation New Day”– announced last week that the King County Prosecutor’s Office had made 16 arrests in connection with crime at 12th Avenue and Jackson Street. The King County Prosecuting Attorney (KCPA) has filed charges in connection with seven of those cases, three were referred to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and “additional information” is being gathered on three others. Nine were released from custody as of Friday.

Seattle mayor unveils plan to ramp up police presence downtown amid surge in violence

“Whether they’re out two days later or one day later, there’s still a benefit to disrupting a market like that,” King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg told KIRO Newsradio’s Gee Scott and Ursula Reutin.

“We’re going to continue to work with SPD and the mayor’s office to do that, as well as any other city in King County that wants some help,” he continued. “Over the last two years, there have been a number of places in King County where a vacuum has been created, and nature abhors a vacuum. Into that moves people who have behavioral health issues, are homeless, or just want to participate in crime. And that’s where we’re going to focus.”

The “broken window” theory of policing might have appeal to community stakeholders immediately affected by disproportionate rates of crime in Seattle areas such as Little Saigon or Third Avenue and Pine Street, but aggressive prosecution can only go so far, Satterberg explained.

“I don’t want to over-promise that somehow the court has all of the answers, because the court isn’t looking at a hotspot,” he said. “The court isn’t looking at a neighborhood that’s been taken over; they’re looking at one person who’s standing in front of the court, and that person may be homeless. They may have serious mental health issues, drug addiction issues, long criminal histories, or a history of ignoring court orders. The judge has to make a decision based on what that person is, what their likelihood to respond to court is, and their likelihood to commit new crimes. If the judge is not involved in Operation New Day, they’re just seeing one person.”

An obvious mitigating factor to the success of hotspot policing is the idea that those exhibiting signs of obvious crime along the corridors in question are actors in good faith with the faculties to negotiate the criminal justice system in a way in which prosecution is equipped to handle.

“It’s a really hard thing, but recognize that a lot of the individuals that we’re dealing with from this particular operation at 12th and Jackson are people who are not responsible, reasonable, rational actors. They don’t keep a calendar,” Satterberg noted. “They’re struggling day-to-day to get by. I don’t want to over-promise what standing in front of a judge will do if a person is homeless; the judge doesn’t have a home for them to go to if they have a serious behavioral health issue. Treatment is not among the things that the judge can order. We can use the process; we will and must use the process that we have, but [this isn’t] the panacea that’s going to fix everybody who has been arrested here.”

The Blake decision

Complicating the so-called hotspot initiative is Washington state’s de-facto decriminalization of simple drug possession. That was triggered by the state Supreme Court’s Blake decision, which rendered existing drug possession laws void. As a follow-up to that, the Legislature standardized drug possession laws, directing law enforcement to divert those who violate possession laws to “assessment, treatment, or other services” in connection with their first two violations. That combination of factors has made it difficult for King County prosecutors to keep pace.

“The Supreme Court … invalidated the drug possession statute that we have … had for 50 years,” Satterberg said.

“We’ve been spending the last year taking care of those old convictions and resentencing people who had one in their prior history,” he continued. “The Legislature then passed a law which, frankly, has proven to be unworkable, that makes it a misdemeanor, but only after the police have made two referrals and the prosecutor has made a referral for treatment. There is no database to collect who’s been referred to who or what. Simple possession statutes are not enforceable and don’t work in our state.”

A new prosecutor

Satterberg will depart the prosecuting attorney’s office this year. Three candidates are currently in the running: Jim Ferrell, mayor of Federal Way; Stephan Thomas, Seattle University law professor and KCPA deputy; and Leesa Manion, chief of staff for KCPA.

“It will be a decision that the voters of King County make this year about what they want out of a prosecutor,” Satterberg said. “The truth is that the thing that we do best is to prosecute serious violent crimes today in King County Superior Court. We have 19 trials. And of those, we have seven murder trials and another for sex crimes, and another couple more serious domestic violence cases.

“The expectation that somehow the county prosecutor will have felony jurisdiction, that we’re somehow going to be the answer to homeless encampments, is just wrong. We need to have a new conversation about [how] people think that the county prosecutor can do anything about that sort of disorder and chaos. If there’s a violent crime that happens in the encampment, that’s our case, and we’ll take it. But trash, needles, and all the things that get people upset are social problems, and it’s not necessarily a legal problem. Maybe underneath that, there is a legal problem. But the social problem is that there are people who live on the streets.”

“Right now we have more than 250 murder trials that are waiting to get to trial,” he added. “That’s what you should expect: a prosecutor who is fair and innovative, but also who can handle a big load of serious violent crimes.”

Listen to Gee Scott and Ursula Reutin weekday mornings from 9 a.m. – 12 p.m. on KIRO Newsradio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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King County prosecutor: Ramping up convictions isn’t ‘panacea’ for public safety crisis