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New King County prosecuting attorney Leesa Manion on drug possession, bail and gun violence

A woman with shoulder-length brown hair smiles as she holds up her right hand facing a judge in robes whose back is to the camera.
King County Prosecuting Attorney's Office
Leesa Manion's swearing in ceremony on Monday, January 9. (King County Prosecuting Attorney's Office)

King County’s new prosecutor took office this month. Leesa Manion has worked in the prosecutor’s office for years, but she says she brings a new perspective to the job. She’s the first woman and person of color in the position. And she’s the first Korean American woman in the country to be elected as a top county prosecutor.

KNKX social justice reporter Lilly Ana Fowler talked with Manion about how crime is being handled in King County. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.


Transcript

Note: This transcript is provided for reference only and may contain typos. Please confirm accuracy before quoting.

Lilly Ana Fowler: Can you talk a little bit about why you wanted the job in the first place and what you thought was missing?

Leesa Manion: I have a very different lived experience and identity than all of the prosecutors who came before me. And my work has allowed me and also my values have guided me in the direction of really working closely with community.

Fowler: In 2021, the Washington State Supreme Court legalized drug possession. Now lawmakers are considering whether to make that decriminalization permanent or return to a harsher punishment for drug possession. What will you be advocating for?

Manion: You know, I really believe that what folks want, they want the behavior to stop. And there is nothing magical about a jail cell that cures substance use disorder or addiction. I think when people cry for penalties, what they're really asking for is for the person who is suffering from substance use disorder to not smoke fentanyl on the bus, to not smoke fentanyl in their business doorway. So can we have a "yes and" approach where those individuals have access to true services? And in order to do that, we have to be honest about the size of the need in our community, and we have to scale that accordingly.

Fowler: I spoke to some public defenders about what they're looking for in this new administration. One of the issues they mentioned is the requirement for bail, whether it's $100 or $1,000, they say bail is out of reach for a lot of folks. And these are the people who end up in jail, not people who have money. How do you address that?

Manion: The challenge around eliminating cash bail is that it creates this binary choice for judges to either hold or release. And I think that there are some judges who would hold reflexively out of an abundance of caution to protect public safety. And so I have long been a proponent of alternatives to incarceration. And in order to do that, we have to fund meaningful alternatives. Research shows that text reminders, group housing, electronic home monitoring treatment will have the impact in the result of getting folks to return to court, which is our goal. And how do we do that so that it's fair, that it's equitable and that allows prosecutors to ask for bail in the right cases and to ask for alternatives in the right cases. But we have to have that menu of options to choose from.

Fowler (narration): So Manion has a lot facing her as she takes over the King County prosecutor’s office. She has to address that rise in fentanyl use, and how to respond to drug possession cases. There are those questions about bail and how to stop the cycle of people who come in and out of jail because of addiction. And she has to respond to gun violence, which has increased over the last few years. On Tuesday, Manion announced the formation of a new unit meant to address gun violence, which will focus on both prosecution as well as prevention.

Manion (at press conference): We have a small pilot project with Harborview Medical Center where a community based individual will reach out and talk to that individual about the harms of being so close to gun violence and being within close proximity of gun violence. What we hope to do is expand those efforts so that we can really offer the services that people need to make lifestyle choices so that they don't become victims or perpetrators of violence. 

Fowler (narration): As another top priority, Manion says she’s forming a new division focused on the prevention and prosecution of gender-based violence, such as sexual assault and domestic violence.

Lilly Ana Fowler reports on social justice issues for KNKX. She previously worked for the nonprofit news site Crosscut — a partner of KCTS 9, Seattle’s PBS station. Reach her at lfowler@knkx.org.
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