From Seattle to Ferguson: Fighting for Criminal Justice Reform
In his new book, “Seattle Justice: The Rise and Fall of the Police Payoff System in Seattle,” former King County Prosecutor Christopher Bayley recounts the bad old days of corruption in the city’s justice system during the 1970s.
As a King County prosecutor in the 1970s, I had several goals in writing my new book, “Seattle Justice: The Rise and Fall of the Police Payoff System in Seattle” (see the Seattle Times review). This story of corruption and reform is unknown to the vast majority of our lawyers, and I wanted to fill that knowledge vacuum. I also wanted to recount the exciting late-1960s days of political reform — to remember all that we did to create a new model of what a prosecutor’s office should be.
But former U.S. Attorney Mike McKay made a point that became the best reason of all: The justice model we created, and which has been continued and expanded in King County by Norm Maleng and Dan Satterberg, is a precious community asset that must be guarded and preserved. All it would take is one election putting in place a person who did not believe in the model, who thought the prosecutor should be more political or less active in pursuing justice throughout the system, and this precious asset would be threatened — or, worse, destroyed.
This reason is even more important now, a year after I finished writing the book and more than a year after Ferguson, the first of many community disasters that might have been prevented had the justice systems in those places been more like what we enjoy today in King County. There are lessons from what we did 45 years ago that could be applied today in communities all across the country.
Fighting for reform
What we called the “justice model” means not only treating everyone equally and prosecuting all good cases, regardless of politics; it means the prosecutor is the key player in justice reform and should be active in that pursuit. It is not enough to be passive and simply handle cases the police bring over. We engaged in Olympia’s legislative battles and fought for juvenile justice reform and sentencing reform. Yet what we did pales in comparison to what my successors have done.
Recently, King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg was invited to a dinner in New York hosted by entertainer John Legend, the founder of Free America, a nonprofit aimed at finding ways to move our country out of what has been called an “era of mass incarceration.” Here are some of the issues Satterberg and other prosecutors discussed at dinner.
- School disciplinary policies that expel students and make graduation much less likely and a path toward delinquency and crime more likely.
- Alternatives to incarceration for drug addiction and mental illness. Satterberg has inaugurated a new program called LEAD, in partnership with public defenders, the ACLU and Seattle Police Department. LEAD gives addicted people, the police and the neighborhood an alternative to incarceration for low-level illegal drug activity.
- Diversion, including King County’s 180 Program, where ex-offenders help kids understand their choices in life so they will take a path that does not end up in a courtroom.
- Restorative justice, where victims of crime can choose to have a mediated conversation with the person who offended against them.
- Taking a second look at prisoners who are in for life because of the three-strikes law enacted two decades ago. Satterberg has joined in petitions for clemency from the governor in worthy cases.
A new way forward
These King County initiatives have had a big impact. Twenty years ago, we contributed about one-third of the state’s inmates for drug crimes; today, we contribute about 7 percent. Because of this, the percentage of inmates serving sentences for drug crimes has fallen from nearly 25 percent to below 10 percent over these years.
The public prosecutor is the natural leader in criminal justice reform. Every county prosecutor carries in his or her sole hands immense power in determining the path of criminal justice. John Legend understood that when he convened his dinner.
Public anguish over Ferguson and subsequent tragedies cannot be erased, but convincing prosecutors all over the country to become reformers is the best way forward. It is step-by-step and will take years, but it provides hope and a way to move the reform discussion onto a positive path. I hope you will spread the word to others who are concerned about criminal justice reform.