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King County Prosecutor’s race Q&A: Diversion programs, sexual offenses

The Seattle Times editorial board asked the candidates for King County Prosecutor, Leesa Manion and Jim Ferrell, four key questions. Here are answers to two. And read Alex Fryer’s column on the race.

Question: How would you determine whether diversion programs are reducing crime or police are simply no longer arresting suspects because they know charges will not be filed?

Leesa Manion: Not all cases are appropriate for fun. Violent crimes, sexual assaults, repeat property crimes, and gun cases should be prosecuted. We rely on law enforcement to refer serious felony cases to the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office and not turn a blind eye.

As prosecutor, I will continue to use qualitative and quantitative data to determine the effectiveness of diversion programs and if they are working to reduce crime. Right now, we know there are many successful diversion programs at the county level, and that they work best when launched with clear goals and objectives in partnership with the community.

For example, data from King County Drug Court, a 10-month post-filing program that addresses root causes, reveals that 71% of participants had no new convictions after 18 months — a drop in recidivism compared to traditional incarceration. Those who don’t complete Drug Court face prosecution.

Early data from Restorative Community Pathways, a pre-filing diversion program for nonviolent youth, shows an 8% recidivism rate compared to a 57% recidivism rate for youth who served time in our state Juvenile Rehabilitation facility.

For teens facing mandatory arrest for interfamilial domestic violence cases, we developed a therapeutic, evidence-based alternative where families receive conflict-management services within 24 hours. This program has reduced juvenile detention admissions by 20%, reduced racial disproportionality, and given youth new tools for success.

Public safety is my top priority. As Prosecutor, my efforts will be data-driven and rooted in a collaborative, common-sense approach to address both incidents of crime and root causes, while reducing the very expensive cost of incarceration.

Jim Ferrell: I completely disagree with pre-filing diversion programs that are not rooted in any accountability and transparency. Programs without a case number, judicial oversight, checkback review, or publicly identifiable program present a serious violation of public trust and undermine confidence in so-called diversion programs. Simply put, these programs are not providing justice for victims of crime because they fail to provide the resources needed for people to recover and learn from their mistakes, and thus be held accountable for harm they’ve caused to communities. That is not fun and it is not justice!

We need current fun programs centered on transparency, accountability and justice. That means: case numbers, a judicial review component, a check back to the court and prosecutor with a written report, and then, if compliant, an eventual dismissal.

A review of what crimes are eligible for diversion programs must also be conducted. Serious felonies like robbery, burglary and bringing a gun to school should not be included.

As your question implies, and as my own experience supervising a police department has shown me, law enforcement is not referring as many cases to the King County Prosecutor’s Office. I am told this is because they believe their cases will not be filed due to the publicly stated positions of the current leadership in the KCPAO. As a result, cases are being filed at the municipal level to seek some sort of justice, even if it is less than what would be tried at the Superior Court level.

This office and these programs need a complete reset, and the crime eligibility review, along with improving our diversion programs, will provide us with the way to make the PAO effective.

Lastly, I am incredibly concerned about the use of taxpayer dollars to private provider organizations, without any meaningful oversight. An audit will need to occur to determine where these dollars have gone and how they have been spent, specifically with the Restorative Community Pathways program. This program must be suspended until this is accomplished.

Question: A 2020 study by the King County Auditor determined that only 10% of all sex offenses reported to the King County Sheriff’s Office resulted in charges filed. Given this statistic, how can you assure sex crime victims that perpetrators will be brought to justice?

Ferrell: During my 16 years as a King County Deputy and Senior Deputy Prosecutor, I helped create and was the first supervisor of the Domestic Violence Court Unit. I also served for several years in the Special Assault Unit, filing and trying these cases. Sexual Assault cases are complex and heart-wrenching.

First, we need to ensure that our partner law enforcement agencies are adequately staffed to fully investigate those heinous crimes.

Second, I have received multiple reports that deputies are not fully trained or ready for trial. That is a failure of leadership. We need to make sure we provide the most up-to-date and specialized training for deputy prosecutors and the leaders assigned to the Special Assault and Domestic Violence Units. The serious crimes being prosecuted in those units require an extra level of care and sensitivity. By doing so, we will ensure that the deputies are ready for trial and victims receive justice.

Manion: Under my 15 years as Chief of Staff, the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office has built strong, trusting partnerships with Harborview, Seattle Children’s, the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center and also established “Ellie’s Place,” an accredited child advocacy center housed at the PAO — all focused on supporting victims and assuring perpetrators are brought to justice. As a mom and the first woman to seek this office, I am fully committed to protecting — and preventing — sexual violence.

Regarding the Auditor’s report, the PAO participated in the 2020 audit, agreed with and had begun implementation of the three specific PAO recommendations by the time the audit was published:
● Provide victims with advocacy information and resources as soon as a case is referred;
● Develop and use data to determine case filing timeliness;
● Collect and track victim and defendant demographics.

The Auditor’s report also included three important findings that we were proud to have achieved:
● No sexual assault cases were improperly declined by the PAO;
● King County continues to be a national leader in bringing together response partners to support sexual assault victims;
● The PAO prioritizes communications with victims about charging decisions.

I have also supported legislation that redefined consent, expanded the statute of limitations in rape cases, and mandated testing for backlogged rape kits. Victims deserve to be heard, and those who commit sex crimes must be held accountable.

As prosecutor, I will continue to assign experienced prosecutors and staff to handle felony sex crimes and utilize victim-centered, trauma-informed training to improve the quality of investigations and prosecutions. I will remain a partner in our county’s work to improve outcomes and access to justice for victims of sexual assault, including advocacy for increased police resources, specialized training and dedicated staffing. I will continue to be transparent about our progress.

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