Former public defender Daron Morris criticized King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg on issues like bail at a Aug. 15 forum at the MLK Labor Temple in Seattle. Photo by Josh Kelety

Former public defender Daron Morris criticized King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg on issues like bail at a Aug. 15 forum at the MLK Labor Temple in Seattle. Photo by Josh Kelety

Race for King County prosecutor heats up at forum

Former public defender Daron Morris slams incumbent Dan Satterberg for the use of bail in the county justice system.

King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg is defending his record against criticisms from his challenger, Daron Morris, a former public defender, over the use of bail in the county justice system.

The candidates faced off in a forum Aug. 15 at the MLK Labor Temple in Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood. The forum was moderated by King 5 reporter Elisa Hahn.

Satterberg, who hasn’t faced an electoral challenger since he first ran for office 11 years ago, has positioned himself as a reformed Republican prosecutor who has championed progressive causes such as banning the death penalty statewide and building up Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD), a program that sends low-level drug offenders to case managers instead of into the justice system.

His challenger in the November 2018 election, Morris, announced his candidacy back in May after a roughly decade-long stint in the King County Public Defense Department. Morris has criticized Satterberg’s tenure as being too incrementalist and not addressing chronic underlying issues such as racial disparities in jail bookings and felony charges filed by the Prosecutor’s Office.

After a few softball questions at the Aug. 15 forum — such as “do you support Initiative 1000” (the ballot initiative that would repeal the ban on affirmative action statewide) and “what issues have you disagreed with labor on,” to which both candidates responded by saying none — Morris brought his qualms to bear.

In response to a question regarding the use of bail in the county justice system, Morris said: “What we’re doing in King County right now is fundamentally not legal. We are setting bail against people without any regard to their ability to pay. Go watch court on the 12th floor … you will see requests being made with numbers pulled out of the ether on people who have jobs, have families, who haven’t been convicted of anything.”

“If we want to wake up and realize what the primary reason is we have such high racial disproportionality in our criminal justice system, and, again this is why I’m running, it starts with bail,” he added.

County public defenders routinely claim that prosecutors request steep bail in the thousands of dollars for defendants, regardless of their ability to pay it. Reforming the use of bail and incarceration in pre-trial proceedings has also been a priority subject of discussion of criminal justice reform advocates nationwide.

Satterberg responded by claiming that less than one percent of inmates in King County jails are held on bail of $1,000 or less, before arguing that the elimination of bail would potentially increase pretrial incarceration because judges would have fewer options at their disposal.

“The truth is that the judges in our county have an active role in this. They follow the law, we follow the law. The judges are faced with this question: ‘will this person come back to court? Will this person commit another crime?’ And if they’re not sure what to do, bail is a third option.”

Satterberg added that the county should pursue accountability alternatives — such as GPS tracking technology or texting — to ensure that defendants show up in court.

“It has to be done in partnership with the court because the judges are the ones who are ultimately setting bail and they need all the options that they can get,” he said.

Morris quickly followed up by asking Satterberg if he would commit to requiring that his deputies request bail according to defendants’ income levels: “Will you request bail according to a person’s ability to pay? You could do it tomorrow, Mr. Satterberg.”

Satterberg declined to answer and responded by claiming that Morris wasn’t following the forum rules. Hahn, the moderator, proceeded to the next question.

Seattle Police Officers Guild President Kevin Stuckey asked the candidates what responsibility the county prosecutor has in undoing institutional racism in the justice system. Satterberg cited his work building up the LEAD program, which Morris criticized as insufficient, citing existing racial disparities in the justice system.

“You want to know why we have wrongful convictions and horrible racial disparities and how to prevent it? It’s not the LEAD program. And the fact that Mr. Satterberg would bring up the LEAD program in responding to a question about racism … the answer to systemic racism is not to give the police more discretion … thinking that we’re going to give the police an opportunity to give a helping hand and that’s going to decrease racial disparity? I mean I hope it at least won’t make it worse, but police discretion, last time I checked, was not a tool for reducing racial disparity.”

The candidates also covered their positions on the controversial new county youth detention center that is under construction in Central Seattle. Satterberg defended his support of the project, calling the existing facility a “terrible building” and arguing that such a facility is needed for violent youth offenders.

“Last week, we had a 16-year-old who shot a 37-year-old man when he got off a bus in West Seattle. Shot him six times in cold blood and killed him. If we didn’t have a detention facility, where is that young person supposed to go? When people shoot other people they’re going to need a timeout, people,” he said.

“There are zero places that have zero youth detention,” he added, referring to calls from activists to eliminate youth detention in the county entirely as well as a similar target goal set last year by the King County Executive. “It’s aspirational, and we’re all working toward reducing it … We’re doing tremendous work here, not getting much credit for it. But yes, we need a juvenile court house like every other community in America.”

Morris responded by saying he is “absolutely” against the project and argued that the county should instead invest in a smaller scale facility for the minority of kids who have committed violent crimes that make up the average daily population of the current youth detention center.

“It wouldn’t have to be a jail even. It would be some sort of secure facility that isn’t a jail. It wouldn’t be the old jail. It wouldn’t be the new jail,” Morris said. “So let’s put whatever kind of rubber band we need to put on this old jail and get it done fast and not wed ourselves to a horrible approach that we’re going to regret for the next 50 years and not take $233 million in unfunded construction costs out of the community and away from the community programs that we actually need to get to zero youth detention which is what we’ve said we’re trying to do.”

Satterberg said the prosecutor is the county’s legal counsel and it would be inappropriate for him to take a public stand against adopted county policy.

“It’s an irresponsible position to take, it’s inconsistent with the role of the prosecuting attorney,” he said in response to Morris.

The one area where Morris and Satterberg seemed to be in substantial alignment was in response to a question from a Seattle firefighter about alleged violent attacks on firefighters committed by homeless persons. Both responded by saying that while the attorney’s office has an obligation to prosecute targeted attacks on firefighters and other civil servants, that action won’t solve homelessness.

“When they come to us we do prosecute these cases. But prosecuting people is not going to be our answer out of homelessness,” Satterberg said.

According to the Public Disclosure Commission, Satterberg has raised roughly $250,000 for his re-election bid. Morris, in contrast, has raised $40,000 so far.

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