Before you vote: Prosecutor candidates on youth jail, sex work | KUOW News and Information

Before you vote: Prosecutor candidates on youth jail, sex work

Jul 23, 2018

King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg is seeking his fourth term this November. In the 11 years he's held office, some years he’s run unopposed. But this year he’s facing a challenger from the left: public defender Daron Morris.   

This year, Morris is challenging Satterberg on initiatives undertaken by the King County Prosecuting Attorney's Office, including a crackdown on sex work, and on broader questions about the role of the criminal justice system in solving social problems.

Morris said he started out as a public defender in New York City twenty years ago, when Rudy Giuliani was the tough-on-crime mayor. But despite newfound attention brought to inequities in the criminal justice system from books like “The New Jim Crow,” Morris believes not enough has changed in King County or the country.

On juvenile detention

Morris said he wants to do more to prevent racial disparities and keep teenagers out of detention. And he does not support the Children and Family Justice Center under construction, which includes a juvenile detention unit. “I don’t think any child belongs in the existing facility, or in the facility that’s planned to replace it,” he said.

Satterberg said that it's not possible for the county to put off building a new juvenile detention center. But the county's top prosecutor also said he's supported alternatives to sentencing, like restorative justice, family mediation and changes to keep more juveniles from being tried as adults.

On the county's sex trade crackdown

Morris is supported by the Sex Workers Outreach Project of Seattle, a group that's opposed the King County Prosecuting Attorney's crackdowns on the sex trade. Morris said the county’s recent sting operations against “johns” who buy sex are misguided.

Instead, Morris supports decriminalizing prostitution. The World Health Organization endorses decriminalization of sex work in order to reduce stigma and improve workers' access to health services.  A sex worker, who did not want to use her full name because of the illegality of her work, joined Morris for an interview with KUOW to explain this position.

“I have been a sex worker for five years,” she said. “I’m unhoused, I’ve been in the situation of being unhoused in Seattle prior, and it was ultimately sex work that enabled me to have material stability.”

The sex worker said the county’s crackdown, even though it’s focused on the buyers, has squeezed out sex workers, too. Now, more of them are homeless, she said.  “I went from being able to relatively maintain rent to being lucky to do so,” she said.

Satterberg, on the other hand, said he does not support decriminalization. He said his office focuss on sex workers who are exploited through violence and coercion.

“I’m sure there are people involved fully and consensually in prostitution,” he said. "But what we see in the criminal justice system is not that.” 

On accepting money from an anti-prostitution group

Morris has also criticized the King County Prosecuting Attorney's Office for accepting grant money from an anti-prostitution group called Demand Abolition. He said the group was allowed too much influence over county policy, requiring certain statements to the press.

Satterberg said that the crackdown on sex buyers was already underway before the grant from Demand Abolition, and that the funding did not influence the investigations. He also said King County does not have any other private funding in the works.

Lawyers for some of the men arrested in the sex buyer sting operations sued the county, saying the grant conditions created a conflict for prosecutors. But a King County Superior Court judge rejected that claim this spring.

On supervised consumption sites

Morris said he supports the supervised consumption sites. This view, he said, was formed during his work as a public defender and as a volunteer at the Crisis Clinic.

"My perspective on this issue is informed by the importance of 'meeting people where they are at,'" Morris said. "It's clear to me that abstinence-based models of treatment don't work for everyone and that safe injection sites will save lives." 

Satterberg said he's open to supervised consumption sites for drug users, but doesn't see them as a broader solution for a regional problem. Some surveys, he said, have indicated that the sites would only serve people in their immediate areas. 

“I support it, I wouldn’t do anything to try to shut it down," Satterberg said. "If we get challenged by the federal government, I’m happy to use my office to defend it,” he said. 

Satterberg has supported the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, or LEAD program, that helps divert people who struggle with addiction away from jail time. Through LEAD, prosecutors work with police and case managers. 

Satterberg also wrote recently about the death of his sister, from complications related to her past drug addiction. Satterberg supports expanding LEAD and on-demand access to drug treatment, as does Morris.

On guns

Satterberg said one of the biggest successes of his office was creating a team to verify that people prohibited from having firearms actually surrender them.  Enforcement of these orders in the past relied on the honor system: No one was tasked with removing the firearms or confirming that they had been surrendered.

Retired Judge Anne Levinson helped launch the new unit.  Now, she said, ”there’s a dedicated team of prosecutors working with law enforcement and working with these civilian employees to tackle each of these cases."

"That had never existed before and it doesn’t exist in most of the country," she added.

Levinson said that team is on track to remove more than four times as many guns from domestic abusers as King County collected two years ago. The team has also worked on 48 Extreme Risk Protection Orders (ERPOs) through June. Those are the orders family members can seek in order to remove guns from people who are in crisis and potentially suicidal. 

Morris called ERPOs, which were approved by Washington voters in 2016,  a "smart and needed approach" to controlling gun violence. "I know how important it is to remove firearms from volatile situations," he said. But he said the prosecutor's office should adopt written policies to make sure the orders are not used " to criminalize mental illness or to target marginalized communities."

On partisanship

The post of King County Prosecutor is nonpartisan. But after years of calling himself a moderate Republican, Satterberg announced this year that he is a Democrat.

"What I didn’t anticipate is that when I went out to talk to people in a campaign for a nonpartisan office, the first thing they would ask is, ‘What are you?’” he said. “Because everybody’s something. And particularly in 2018 there’s no sidelines anymore.”

Satterberg said he wanted to make clear he does not support President Trump and has a long record of supporting Democratic priorities.

Morris said he is also a Democrat. He said he’s not a member of the People’s Party, which in Seattle has vigorously protested the construction of the juvenile detention center.   

On future reform

Satterberg said his office is rethinking its approach to many types of crime. “I continue to evolve in the way I look at a lot of these matters, and I think that’s a good thing,” he said. “I have been in the office for 33 years and I’ll tell you that we have evolved in a lot of things.”

But Morris said that some reforms should become more urgent priorities. He said he grew disillusioned with what he could accomplish in his former role.

“Mass incarceration is still here," Morris said. “Honestly I wanted to be able to say to my kids that I’d stood up. Done something. That was pretty much it.”