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New youth program divides candidates for King County Prosecutor

caption: Leesa Manion, left, is chief of staff at the King County Prosecutor's Office. Jim Ferrell, right, is mayor of the city of Federal Way.
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Leesa Manion, left, is chief of staff at the King County Prosecutor's Office. Jim Ferrell, right, is mayor of the city of Federal Way.
Manion photo courtesy of Chris Frankovich. Ferrell photo by Amy Radil

In recent years, the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office has been something of a laboratory for new approaches to lower-level crimes, with the goal of reducing incarceration. But a new program to keep young people out of the court system is proving controversial. Critics say there isn’t enough tracking or oversight.

In an election year, the program has become a hot topic in the King County Prosecutor’s race.

King County has offered so-called “diversion” programs for young people for years. Traditionally, prosecutors and judges agree not to criminally charge someone, as long as they complete a program geared to their needs.

Sean Goode heads Choose 180, one of the community programs that serves young people in King County. He said with traditional diversion, going to court still took a lot of time and resources.

“We’d spend a ton of time helping people navigate the court process, and not getting them the resources they need to navigate life,” he said.

So last November, King County launched a new diversion process for youth called Restorative Community Pathways.

Jimmy Hung heads the juvenile division at the King County Prosecutor’s Office. He said prosecutors can now refer young people facing certain charges straight into community interventions.

“We made the decision that we wouldn’t even bring the case into the court system, and we would actually in some ways divest from court resources and invest that money into the community," Hung said.

The county is spending $6.2 million on the Pathways program over two years. Goode said with that funding, eight nonprofits are working to create customized responses to each young person’s risk factors.

They can offer therapy, tutoring, a restorative justice process if the victim desires, and other supports.

“It could be helping their parents overcome some of the financial gaps in the household," Goode said. "Right now we’re helping young people and their families stay housed.”

And any crime victims are eligible for the same help, along with restitution for stolen or damaged property. Hung said so far, 331 youth have been referred to the program along with 230 “harmed parties.”

King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg and his chief of staff Leesa Manion helped launch the Pathways program. Its future is now an issue in the prosecutor’s race.

Satterberg is not seeking reelection this year and Manion is running to succeed him. Her challenger is Jim Ferrell, a former prosecutor with King County who is now the mayor of Federal Way.

Ferrell and other South King County mayors unsuccessfully sought a “pause” on the Pathways program last December, saying they had concerns about the program and it was launched without their input.

If elected, Farrell said he would retain the program, but make major changes like restoring court oversight.

“There are no judges involved,” he said. “That is a huge error in my opinion, and a real lack of transparency and accountability.”

Ferrell said another shortcoming of the program, for him, is a lack of follow-up by prosecutors or the court once the young person’s case is diverted and handed over to a nonprofit.

“It’s astounding to me,” he said. “I’ve got 19 years of experience as a prosecutor. I’ve never heard of a diversion program in which there was never a checkback to say, ‘Did you show up?’ ‘Did you complete what they asked you to do?’”

Jimmy Hung, head of the juvenile division, responded that the program was designed with trust in the community organizations, and they don’t want to exert leverage or surveillance over the process.

“We don’t need to know how things are going,” Hung said. “We’ll know if things haven’t gone right because the kid has committed another crime, and then we’ll address that if and when it happens.”

Ferrell’s opponent Leesa Manion echoed that response, saying prosecutors don’t track the outcomes of the diversion process, but they do track whether the young person gets re-arrested.

“Once the young person makes contact with the community service provider, we in the prosecuting attorney’s office no longer have a role in that matter,” she said. “But of course we’re aware of the individuals who have been referred, and because we know who they are, we also know whether they come back to us.”

Hung noted that prosecutors are prepared for the fact that some young people will reoffend, but they believe the Pathways program will be effective overall and give crime victims more satisfaction with the outcome.

Candidate Jim Ferrell said some of the crimes eligible in the program are too serious and he would make changes if elected. He said robbery in the second degree, for example, should not be allowed.

But his opponent Leesa Manion said a robbery charge may be a good fit for diversion, once prosecutors scrutinize the facts of the case.

“It sounds really alarming,” she said. “But in the juvenile realm, that is really a student or young person pushing another young person and taking a backpack or a phone.”

Unlawful possession of a firearm in the second degree is another charge that Ferrell said shouldn’t be eligible for diversion.

“Bringing a gun to school and unlawful possession of a firearm in the second degree is on that list,” he said. “And I’m like — really? With everything going on in this country you’re going to allow people to go to a program with no checkback that’s brought a gun to school?”

Prosecutors responded that a youth who specifically threatens someone with a gun would not be eligible for the program, and that only two or three people have been referred on this charge so far.

Hung said that includes a 14-year old girl who brought a gun to school in response to a TikTok campaign, showed it to friends, was quickly reported to administrators, and immediately confessed and apologized.

Sean Goode, who helps craft these youth interventions, said Ferrell is trying to discredit a promising approach in order to gain votes.

“Casting concerns about young people bringing guns into schools in 2022 is fear-mongering at its best,” Goode said. “It’s unfortunate to introduce such a horrific image in an effort to discredit an approach that truly is rehabilitative and leads to healing over harm.”

Manion said the vast majority of cases referred to the Pathways program so far are misdemeanors. She said prosecutors are trying new approaches because conventional approaches haven’t been working.

“If we could solve behavior by having a judge issue an edict, we would have solved this a long time ago,” she said.

The King County Prosecutor’s race is nonpartisan, and is not on the ballot until the November election. But the campaign in full swing. The League of Women Voters for Seattle-King County is holding a candidate forum in Renton tonight, which will be livestreamed.

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