With incumbent Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg retiring, the question of who will be King County’s next prosecutor looms large. Whoever is elected could radically shape the direction of how the criminal legal system operates for the county’s more than 2 million residents.
Like his opponent Leesa Manion, Satterberg’s current chief of staff, Federal Way Mayor Jim Ferrell has experience working in King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, where he spent 16 years as a prosecutor. Since his time there, Ferrell has also pursued a career in local politics, becoming a city councilmember and thrice-elected mayor of Federal Way. Ferrell has championed public safety concerns voiced by smaller cities in South King County, taking a more tough-on-crime approach than his Seattle counterparts.
Ferrell has also positioned himself as a bit of a populist, criticizing recent police accountability laws passed by the Washington state legislature. He is proudly endorsed by local police unions and made tackling wage theft a key item on his platform. In particular, Ferrell criticized the youth diversion program Restorative Community Pathways, which Satterberg established, saying that the program lacks oversight.
Real Change: Why do you want to be the King County Prosecuting Attorney?
Jim Ferrell: I worked here in the office for 16 years. And before that, I was a city prosecutor for three years. So I was a prosecutor for a total of 19 years. But I really, I love the work because it ultimately is about helping people. Not just the victims, but everybody involved — even the individuals that find themselves on the other side of the cases. So I really feel like I've got a particular experience, both as a prosecutor and now as the leader of a city, in which I have a real holistic view. My 19 years of being a prosecutor actually made me, I think, more understanding of the human condition and more understanding of how fragile people are. And it really is about helping people getting what I call “course corrected.” I have been very concerned about the direction of the office and the direction of public safety in the region and I think I've got a better way to go about it. And, really frankly, I felt like if I didn't stand up and do this ... I don't think that my opponent has the experience of the criminal division, she never tried a criminal case. I felt like I needed to do this, because I really feel like I'm the best person for the job.
RC: What makes you suitable for this position, and why do you feel that you're better than Leesa Manion? There are other aspects than the criminal division so what makes you better than your opponent on this one?
JF: Well first, I wanna to say that Leesa should be commended for 27 years of service to the community and the office. I think actually where I just have such a tremendous background — where I think our experiences differ is — I not only have experience in the criminal division, I also have experience when I was at the city of civil experience. I've got much more of a wide ranging experience.
But I do think it is just in comparison to my opponent, when most people think of the King County Prosecutor's Office and the functionality of the office is, you know, the criminal division is a central piece of this, and I can't imagine doing this job and have never tried a criminal case, never handled a criminal case, never stood in court on a criminal case. You know, on the other hand, I've had hundreds of jury trials. I've tried, I've handled thousands of cases. I used to be a filer at the Regional Justice Center in downtown handling special assault and domestic violence. I have this vast reservoir of experience in the criminal division. Some of these units have essentially their own language, whether it's the sentencing schemes and the dynamics of domestic violence in which I spent half of my time, or special assault and the dynamics there. I like Leesa, she's done a lot for the community. I just think my experience is a real separator.
I want to let you know that there's a real disconnect right now between the office and the cities that they serve. I'm a board member of the Sound Cities Association, and their motto is, you know, 38 cities, a million people, one voice. If you take a look at my endorsements and see the number of mayors and elected officials that have endorsed my campaign, I think it's over 15 current mayors, like four or five former mayors [and] a congressman. If you just focus on the mayors for a moment, there's been a real disconnect between the King County Prosecutor's Office and the leadership of the cities. And I think a lot of that has to do with really a perceived lack of respect and lack of communication.
RC: What, in your opinion, is justice? How do societies achieve it, and do you believe that punishment can constitute justice?
JF: A few years ago, Dan [Satterberg] gave us all challenge coins, and I still keep that coin on my desk, where justice was at the center of it. And I think your question really does get right to the very heart of the matter. Punishment is only a portion of the equation. It's really only — speaking of coins — it's one side of the coin. Justice itself is a two-part process. There's an accountability process to the offender that has committed a crime. But there's also, where justice is due to the accused, it's also due to the accuser … and so I think that victims deserve justice. It's a two-sided coin, if you will.
And so I think that people really do believe I mean, we've all in our lives, we've been the victim of something. We've all had things happen to us and when people do [feel like that], they want to feel like there's some there's some justice and that's what the system is about. And what that means is punishment, accountability, and where the individual is aware and is and is confronted, and pays some sort of price, some sort of sanction for committing a crime that we've all agreed is illegal. But I think the the flip side of that coin is the victims, it's also whether it's the families of homicide victim, whether it's the sexual assault victim or the domestic violence victim, or even somebody who's had their bike stolen, or their catalytic converter sawed out of their car. Then, you know, justice for them is that they know that the punishment that the individual's been held accountable, and they have that peace of mind and any sort of restitution that's owed to them from that.
I think justice denotes fairness. I mean I think ultimately, what we're all looking for, is that people are treated fairly, equally, justly and not overly, not a system that overreacts. And that's actually where I think [former Prosecuting Attorney] Norm [Maleng] did a really good job before he tragically passed away, is going back down to Olympia and fixing the drug laws, which were escalated back in the 80s with the explosion of crack cocaine and, and adjusting to that crisis. He eventually went back down there and readjusted those because it was disproportionate, and I think justice must be proportionate.
RC: We see the same thing over and over again, in our justice systems. That Washington State disproportionately targets and impacts Black, Latine and Indigenous people. So if elected, how do you tackle the deep structural racism within King County's criminal legal system?
JF: So I think it's important to note that that officers arrive onto the scene because they have been dispatched there. So we start with that premise, other than car stop cases and those kinds of things. I think the critical thing keep in mind I have filed hundreds, if not thousands of cases and handled thousands of cases.
So you have to get through a lot of paper a lot of times in which I would be looking through the police reports and the state of the witness statements and I'd get to the end of the reports and I wouldn't even be aware of what the color and nationality or those kinds of things. So I say that because part of this has to just be evidence driven. But the most important thing is you can't be blind to those issues and you've got to respond.
You have to create a culture of accountability in law enforcement.
I've made it a policy in the city of Federal Way that if we have anybody on the Brady list, they're automatically terminated, and we don't allow anybody at the city of Federal Way Police Department that has a Brady violation.
RC: I think part of this is that when we're looking at prosecutions, when we're looking at the cases that come before the courts and we're looking at convictions, we're seeing a disproportionate percentage of people being impacted that aren't white compared to the overall proportion in the county. Why do you think that is? And what is the prosecuting attorney's role in addressing that?
JF: I think we need to be looking at how was contact initiated? I don't think that anybody is advocating for that we're going to treat anybody differently based on their background or their race, that we're going to treat people differently if we have evidence that they've committed a robbery or a murder or something like that…
So I think that's really kind of the fulcrum point of how this law enforcement, in any kind of filing consideration, how did law enforcement become aware of this individual and how did they come into contact with this person?
RC: Just in the first eight months of 2022, six people have died in King County Jail, including four from suicide. One expert talked to the Seattle Times and said that was an astronomical rate. If elected, how would you address that crisis?
JF: I read the article in Seattle Times and it's alarming, it's concerning. I think part of what's happening is the isolation that people are experiencing and the COVID protocols that are still in place. What's been happening is people are in their cells for long periods of time. They're not getting visitors, they're not having activities, they don't have anybody in the cells with them. And that prolonged periods of isolation, and with people that already either have chemical or mental health issues, you've got to address that. And I think they've got to find a way to and I think they probably need to bring some experts in to make sure that to understand what's happening. Because as you all know from the dynamics of suicide, those things can escalate as well. So they've got some things in place that are isolating people and exacerbating people that are already experiencing crisis.
RC: Would you eliminate cash bail? Why or why not?
JF: No. I've asked for bail, I don't know how many times, thousands. From somebody who spent probably half my time in the prosecutor's office handling homicide cases, domestic violence cases, bail is to protect the victims. So really, there's only a couple of factors that you can use. Is the person likely to commit a violent offense? Are they a flight risk, a risk of not reappearing based on prior warrants. And then are they a danger to interfere with the administration of justice or a sexual assault case? A homicide case? Somebody who has 75 prior warrants, and is not going to come back. There are times in which people find themselves in a downward cycle, if you just keep letting them out, they're gonna get in more trouble and more trouble and more trouble. And I can think of a couple instances in which people racked up quite a number of charges when they're in these processes. It's important to stop the cycle. Bail is to protect people. And I don't support that.
RC: Many defense attorneys have argued that they can't properly prepare for trial if their client's in jail. So do you not think that cash bail does kind of create this two-tiered legal system where a rich defendant can bail themselves out while poor defendants cannot?
JF: Bail considerations need to be based on is the person dangerous, and are they likely not going to appear? Or do we think they're going to interfere with the administration of justice. Those are the three factors. If people can make bail, then they can, there's not much you can do about it. They also should not be calculated just to hold people, they should be calculated to make sure that you're protecting the public. And there are instances when people got out on homicide cases, and they went out and victimized other victims or went after their accuser. The criminal justice system is there to protect. In most of the trials that I had when I was a prosecutor, many of those individuals were in custody and the competent defense attorneys, they have access to their clients and they can adequately prepare. There should be no bar. There's conference rooms like this where I sat with criminal defense attorneys and their clients and had meetings with them. So I don't think meaningful preparation is the basis for eliminating bail. Some people have committed serious crimes. And they need to be held.
RC: In what cases will your King County Prosecuting Attorney's Office request a defendant to be jailed or otherwise restricted prior to trial?
JF: I think that it's a spectrum, right? You've got the most serious cases — the homicides, the domestic violence, sexual assault cases — where somebody is a threat. If someone is a child molester and they've done it again and they're preying on people and they're hanging around the schools... I don't want them on my child's school. So I think really you're looking at protection of the public and protection of the victim and to ensure that you don't have somebody flee, because that's also a real thing, as well. Somebody has multiple prior warrants or is likely to flee, you don't want that. That would be a failure of justice.
RC: Do you support the zero youth detention and incarceration targets by the King County Executive, including the closure of the youth jail by 2025?
JF: Well let me just say that's not tethered to reality. It's just not. It may sound nice, but that's really a disservice to the public. And it's not true. It's not going to happen, it can't happen. You know, what are you gonna do with those juveniles that commit homicide or robbery at gunpoint. They let two people out in Federal Way, two juveniles who committed a robbery at gunpoint, held an entire pawn store up. They gave them electronic home monitors, and they went down to Tacoma and killed two people. So this gets real. That's not tethered to reality and it's not right to the community.
I always thought that was sort of aspirational language about zero youth detention. They've got the population down in the juvenile jail facility down to, in a county of 2 million people, like 37 individuals, last time I checked. Those are people held on firearms charges, robberies — serious crimes. When people are in crisis, or when they're causing crisis for other people, some people need to be held. I don't think that's going to happen.
RC: Under the leadership of Dan Satterberg, the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office has been criticized for accepting donations from anti-sex worker organizations and conducting stings of people who hire sex workers. If elected, would you continue to criminalize sex workers and their customers? Why or why not?
JF: I think the focus on those cases should never be with the sex worker. They should be with the individual patronizing them. And we need to make sure that that kind of exploitation of vulnerable people, both young people and people from all ages is not allowed….
RC: Do you support drug decriminalization? Why or why not?
JF: What I do think is that we can't just allow wide scale decriminalization, because that actually leads to violence. That's what we're seeing in South King County. The legislature has statewide preemption and the issue. I actually think that for most street level narcotic activity, you could make it a gross misdemeanor, like a DUI or that level which is punishable by up to 364 days, ...
The problem now is that the scheme that's in place now is essentially decriminalization, it requires two prior warnings. There's no database for it and it's causing a lot of trouble in the cities, because you've got street level narcotic activity, and the police really can do nothing. You've got people shooting up in broad daylight, in the presence of police officers, and other than warn somebody, they can't do anything about it. That's really a breakdown of the social order and I don't think it's appropriate. But it also doesn't have to necessarily be a felony, either.
RC: The State Supreme Court recently passed a decriminalization ruling, How would you navigate that?
JF: All the legislature had to do was add one word to the law, one word, and that was the fix. I agreed with the state Supreme Court. I think they were right about the issue, because I think Blake was rightly decided.
What we did, while there was a gap in the law between the decision and the legislature finally acting, we in Federal Way drafted a gross misdemeanor statute that added the word [“knowingly”]. And we could have taken care of it, but the state has preemption and our statute became void upon the legislature acting.
RC: Pre-trial diversion programs have been hailed as a way to reduce the burdens of the criminal legal system and provide more resources. You recently criticized one such program, Restorative Community Pathways, for “lacking judicial oversight.” Why did you make those statements?
JF: So it's not just the lack of judicial oversight, which is a glaring omission. But it's lacking any oversight. I think diversion programs are critical. I think diversion programs are essential at the misdemeanor and juvenile level, and even at the low level felony level. But let me say a couple of things. We've all made mistakes. I've made mistakes, everybody I know has made a mistake, right? We want to get people back and course corrected.
I want to say first of all, I support diversion programs wholeheartedly, and that'll continue when I'm prosecutor.
What's wrong with RCP? You get no case number, no check back, no judge, no discernible program. It's not a diversion program. It's literally a “looking the other way” program. They literally don’t have any idea what happens in these cases. … Well, that’s really outrageous.
RC: The state legislature made a mandate that first time juvenile misdemeanor offenses have to go to pre-filing diversion. But you don't agree with that for felonies?
JF: I think misdemeanors are much different than felonies. Our focus — and by “our” I’m meaning all the mayors that have endorsed me — has been on felonies. And so misdemeanors are a different thing. I think that if somebody committed a misdemeanor offense, you know a minor assault or, a theft or something along those lines, a shoplift. Those are amenable to, rightly, to pretrial diversions. Where we had the concern were with the felonies, and that's just not appropriate. At a minimum they need a case number, they need to see a judge and they need to check back: Did you do what you were asked? Right now, we don't have any idea and we've asked them over and over and over, what are they being asked to do? We don't know. We don't know how this money is being spent. It’s not appropriate.
RC: Recently, Satterberg requested a criminal probe by the King County Sheriff's Office into former Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan's deleted text messages and potential violations of public records law. Would you prosecute Durkan if the sheriff's office finds beyond a reasonable doubt that she broke the law?
JF: Let me start by saying — I fervently believe this — that no person is above the law, number one. Number two, I don't think it'd be appropriate for me to give an indication of whether I would charge a particular person out of fairness to that individual. I have made charging decisions on hundreds and hundreds of cases. I’d have to take a look at it, I can tell you that no one's above the law. And if anybody has [broken] the law, and you've got reliable evidence, people need to be held accountable.
RC: As the Prosecuting Attorney, would you spend resources necessary to go after “white collar” crime or environmental crimes?
Yes, I think actually that's a big concern. I hear sometimes where the response back is, “Oh, that's a civil matter.” And I think white collar crime is a very serious thing. You know, we're talking large amounts of money, and we need to make sure that the penalties for that [are proportionate]. When I was in the filing unit, when I was in irregular trial teams, I had a couple of these embezzlement cases where we had one count of theft first degree, and we had a ton of money involved, and the zero standard range for theft I was only like zero to 90 days. And that's really disproportionate.
The struggle in a grocery store over food turns into a robbery second degree, when you're talking about $10 of food for somebody who can't eat versus somebody who steals a couple of hundred thousand dollars from an employer through embezzlement or through fraud, and they're looking at a much different standard range. I think you need to be cognizant of that and make sure … that people need to be treated appropriately.
RC: Studies have shown that wage theft is the largest single type of theft, yet a lot of prosecutors tend to prioritize retail and petty theft. If elected, how would you prioritize labor rights violations and wage theft versus other property crimes?
JF: One of the first things I’m gonna do at the prosecutor's office is create a separate unit to handle the 5,000 case backlog that is really concerning. The second thing I'm going to do immediately, is create a wage theft unit, probably break it apart from the fraud unit or a specialized section. Some of these will probably be a little labor and time intensive. And I think that's probably why prosecutors don't understand it, they aren’t well-versed in it. My friends in the carpenters association, labor unions, for the past eight years have been talking to me about this. When I first started to run, I made this a central piece of my campaign.
RC: Do you think that the current inquest system into police killings is fair, functional or accomplishes the goal that it's meant to? Why or why not?
We were concerned once again about what we felt was really arbitrary [changes] and a lack of any sort of consultation with the cities. They just by fiat changed these rules. I think actually, many of our concerns have been addressed. Now that the state supreme court has ruled on this, I do believe that those reforms have leveled the circumstances. I was concerned about the process, I was concerned about the legal authority to do that, because you just can't let people exercise unlimited authority to just randomly change laws. But now that those are in place, I do believe that the system is working toward more just outcomes. Because we really do want to make sure that … if we've got officers and they've killed somebody, they've murdered somebody, they absolutely must be held accountable, period.
RC: If elected, could you see your office prosecute police who kill people? What instances would you see yourself doing that? Would you wait for the inquest jury or go against their findings?
JF: I would not feel bound by the inquest jury. I would hope that they would have all the information, but they're not the final arbiter, the prosecutor is. But certainly if the inquest jury felt that there was criminality, that it was unlawful, I would give them tremendous deference — almost complete. I can't think of a scenario in which I wouldn’t go along with that.
RC: You've been endorsed by many police officer guilds and recently held a joint press conference with them. Given your close relationship with police unions, how would you remain neutral in cases where law enforcement officers commit crimes and inflict violence on other community members? Do you think police unions have a reactionary effect on local politics?
JF: Well let me just say this: The relationships would have no bearing whatsoever. Number one, before the legislature ruled on vascular restraints, I called up our police chief and I said that police officers are no longer allowed to use vascular restraints. He tried to push back and I'm like, “I don't want to hear it, that's what we're doing.” Number two, I basically put in the policy about the Brady rule that we would fire any officers who are on the Brady list. Now that Federal Way Police Officer’s Guild has endorsed me for the past, almost 19 years. Every time that I've run for office minus one, the first time I ran for mayor in 2010.
… I can tell you this right now, the police officers do not want bad actors in their ranks. If they've got somebody who's committed a crime, we’ll take care of it. If we have the evidence, we will charge. And it's not about anything else other than justice. The reason why I have such strong law enforcement support is that they're alarmed really at the direction of some of the pursuit laws, the drug laws. They feel like it's gone too far. But I can tell you that I will hold everybody accountable equally.
RC: Leesa [Manion] has criticized you for standing specifically with Mike Solan and his role in holding back transparency around the officers who were present at the insurrection?
JF: I really don't know anything about any of that. I've been thinking about this since then, because I saw the Seattle Times article. I think actually her bringing in the Jan. 6 thing is really just beyond the pale. And let me just say that I think Jan. 6 was one of the saddest days in American democracy and our nation's history. I think it's abhorrent and I'm troubled that she would try to bring this in.
Mike Solan represents a thousand police officers, he's the president of the Seattle Police Officers Guild. So to bring up this whole specter of Jan. 6 is really offensive to me. You know, he represents a thousand officers, the rank and file. I'm honored to have their endorsement, it's a huge endorsement.
RC: I just wanted to bring this up because you mentioned the pursuit laws. It was really interesting to see former sheriff Urquhart write an op ed in favor of that and saying that it's not worth taking an extra life or risking an extra life for a sheriff to speed at 70 miles an hour pursuing someone on the run. I'm just curious what your thoughts are of that opinion.
JF: I like John and John's good guy. I disagree with him on this. Here's the problem. You've got the law of unintended consequences, and as a result, offenders know that they can't be stopped. So what do they do? They hit the gas. And it's creating a much more dangerous situation. You're creating a comical, ridiculous situation in which officers who don't have complete probable cause — anybody who knows anything about criminal law will know that most stops don't start with probable cause — they start with reasonable suspicion. You've got a situation, that's absurd, in which officers highly suspect that somebody is driving a stolen car, maybe your neighbor's car or your family member's car, a car that they rely on for their job, and they can't pursue them. That's absurd. I mean, this is really about whether we're gonna protect the public. I think that pursuit law was drafted by people who didn't quite understand the real life consequences of that. As a result, in one year, car theft has gone up 88 percent in the state of Washington. So that's just not tenable. We're the only state in the country that has that standard.
Update: This article has been updated to reflect the correct name of Restorative Community Pathways, the diversion program.
Guy Oron is the staff reporter for Real Change. Find them on Twitter, @GuyOron.
Read more of the Sept. 28-Oct. 4, 2022 issue.