For its March 15 cover story, Real Change did a deep dive into Seattle City Attorney Ann Davison’s first year in office and how her leadership has impacted the city’s criminal legal system. As part of this story, Davison agreed to respond to written questions sent by email. Unfortunately, she was unable to provide the answers by press time, so the newspaper has agreed to run the Q&A as an online exclusive.
This exchange is intact with changes in brackets added for clarity.
Real Change: After a tumultuous couple of years with the COVID-19 pandemic, you took office with a law department rife with staffing issues and a significant case backlog. How have you, as city attorney, worked to bring the CAO back into working order? Is it still struggling or have conditions improved over the last year?
Ann Davison: I am very proud to have significantly stabilized and turned around the City Attorney’s Office during my first year in office. We have hired a significant number of new attorneys, and, now that we are closer to full staffing, the gaps for where we can better serve the public are becoming more clear. By implementing our Close-in-Time policy [note: this policy required filing charges for most crimes within five business days], police referrals are getting a timely decision instead of lingering for months or even years.
In reflecting on 2022, what were your highlights in regards to the Civil division? What accomplishments are you proud of?
The Civil Division has done an excellent job providing comprehensive legal services to [the] City of Seattle government, including executive, judicial and legislative branch officials, department heads, managers, staff and City boards and commissions. Division attorneys have worked closely with their clients to solve legal issues and represent the City in litigation and administrative proceedings in local, regional, state and federal venues.
I am particularly proud of the work done to support clients facing unique workplace transition issues around the end of the Mayor’s pandemic emergency proclamation, to defend the City in multiple difficult lawsuits arising out of the CHOP, to help me negotiate a new union contract that more fairly compensates our underpaid criminal prosecutors, and, most recently, has to hold Kia and Hyundai accountable for excluding near universal anti-theft technology only in their least expensive models, knowing it left them highly susceptible to easily being stolen and often used to commit other crimes.
During your first year, you have made a number of changes to the Criminal Division, including implementing the "high utilizer" initiative, reducing the filing deadline and petitioning the Seattle Municipal Court to not allow people who are frequently entangled in the criminal legal system to have access to diversion services such as community court. In your opinion, what have been your biggest accomplishments and challenges during your first year?
The Criminal Division’s four biggest accomplishments in the past year have been tackling the 5,000 case backlog I inherited from the prior administration, implementing the Close-in-Time policy to make filing decisions more timely and launching the High Utilizer Initiative and our data transparency team. I started a first of its kind data and transparency team in the City Attorney’s Office. With that, we are at the helm of innovation in this regard for prosecutorial offices around the country. My pledge coming into office was to improve transparency and move us towards real-time accountability and we’ve seen tremendous strides toward those goals.
Real Change has previously reported that prosecutions have risen sharply during 2022 compared to the previous year. Black, Indigenous and poor people have been disproportionately affected by this. How do you reckon with the prospect that policies such as tackling the backlog or a faster filing period may have led to the prosecutions of more community members? Many are neighbors, parents, siblings, children and other beloved Seattle residents who will be saddled with more court debt, potential jail time, probation or other costly consequences which could have been avoided if the prosecutor decided to divert their cases instead.
As my office has reported in our detailed quarterly reports, that importantly includes both defendant and victim demographics, case filings have increased compared to during the pandemic but have not exceeded pre-pandemic levels. The City Attorney’s Office has received a steady number of criminal case referrals from Seattle Police in the past year despite an increase in overall crime and fewer police officers to respond to those incidents. I believe there is an important role for the criminal justice system to protect victims and hold those who commit crimes accountable.
The goal of the criminal justice system should ultimately be to change behavior and I am committed to accounting for individual circumstances to use diversion and service interventions when appropriate. When we see repeat criminal activity, and sadly repeat victims, communities rely upon the public safety system and for us to do our role within it.
The King County Department of Public Defense has reported some noteworthy cases with their Twitter account [Seattle Municipal Court Watch] of clients who were prosecuted for theft or trespassing in very minor cases such as stealing paper towels. Clearly these are folks who are very desperate, facing poverty and potentially homelessness. How can you justify the city attorney spending resources to try to lock them up?
When making filing decisions, our office looks at the full circumstances of the case as well as the defendant’s larger history. In some cases, the defendant may have stolen $50 worth of cosmetics, but it was their fifth time stealing from that same store and in two prior incidents they had assaulted an employee. I will defend victims and enforce accountability in those cases. As an advocacy channel which is not held to fact-based reporting, the [Seattle Municipal Court Watch] often misrepresents the bigger picture in order to make a point. Looking at the entire criminal event, including the victim, gives us a better view of what happened.
Recently, you co-authored an op-ed in the Seattle Times blaming [Department of Social and Health Services] for producing a backlog of defendants who need mental health treatment but are unable to access them. Could you talk about your record of dealing with folks experiencing mental health crises? How is the CAO approaching this issue compassionately in an evidence-based manner? Previously, the CAO has suggested that offering jail cells is an adequate treatment for people experiencing mental health emergencies (which it clearly isn't): “I will coordinate closely with ... the King County Jail to disrupt the cycle of crime for these individuals.” Especially in light of the crisis in the jail, it seems like a priority may be to reduce the number of people held inside the facility.
There are a significant number of people in Seattle who are struggling with severe mental illness and/or substance use disorder and who commit serious misdemeanor or felony crimes. Those individuals need help from qualified professionals in an in-patient facility. I am dismayed that the state, which is responsible for providing that care, is failing to do so. That’s why [King County Prosecuting Attorney] Leesa Manion and I joined together to call out that failure and demand a real plan to adequately staff and fund Western State Hospital.
I think we can all agree that releasing someone in [a] severe mental health crisis without treatment poses a significant risk to that individual and sometimes the public. In many cases, those defendants interacted with our office because their actions created real victims who also have a right to personal safety.
As I noted in the op-ed, we cannot in good faith ask for defendants to sit in jail knowing that the State will not provide them the treatment they need.
Last year, the CAO rolled out a new diversion program with Gay City. Will you be looking at more such programs to expand diversion opportunities as opposed to increased prosecution? Perhaps the city could partner with Restorative Community Pathways or other similar initiatives?
We are evaluating our diversion programs and are constantly looking for ways to reduce use of the criminal justice system for individuals who are likely to succeed in changing their behaviors with alternative interventions. Successful behavior change is born out of choice, which is why I believe there should be opportunities for diversion and consequences for not engaging or dropping out of those programs
What are your biggest plans as City Attorney in 2023?
The city is facing a serious public safety crisis in every neighborhood and district. That crisis is
often most acutely felt by people of color and small businesses in neighborhoods like Chinatown/International District. We are also facing a crisis of drug use, overdoses and criminal activity stemming from this trend. The City Attorney, SPD or KCPAO alone cannot turn back the tide of fentanyl and meth use on our streets. I’ll be looking for real partnership from the State and County to facilitate treatment options for defendants in custody.
I am proud of the changes that the City Attorney’s Office has made over the past year but I know that much more needs to be done to make this city safe and thriving for all.
Guy Oron is the staff reporter for Real Change. Find them on Twitter, @GuyOron.
Read more of the Mar. 15-21, 2023 issue.