This morning Stephan M. Thomas, a former King County Prosecutor who served as the office's director of community justice initiatives until 2019, jumped into the increasingly crowded race to replace four-term King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg, who recently announced his intention to step down from his role at the end of this year.
Satterberg's departure leaves a big hole in a powerful office facing a number of crises during a weird time, though those conditions have only drawn more talent to the hunt. Seemingly seconds after his announcement, Satterberg's chief of staff, Leesa Manion, launched her bid with a nod of approval from her boss, followed shortly thereafter by an endorsement from King County Executive Dow Constantine. King County Councilmember Rod Dembowski also threw his hat in the ring, as did Federal Way Mayor Jim Ferrell.
Thomas separates himself from the pack in a number of ways. Right now he's the only Black man running for a position that puts away Black men at disproportionally high rates, and I'm pretty sure he's the only candidate who ever ran with "one of Chicago's largest gangs" as a teenager growing up on the South Side.
Selling pot and working at Bed, Bath, & Beyond
During a video call last week, Thomas offered the "short version" of his remarkable life story, which begins in Washington, D.C., where his parents met. The two connected in activist circles, where they worked as union organizers. Eventually they moved to Chicago to help Harold Washington become that city’s first Black mayor. Though dad worked hard to advance civil rights, he also had "a ton of anger, and he brought that anger home, and I was one of the people he released that anger out on in an abusive way," Thomas said. He would later learn that man hands on misery to man; his father's father had served time for homicide, a situation that traumatized his dad growing up.
Dad left when Thomas was six years old, leaving him alone with mom on the South Side of Chicago. Despite all her love and attention, she couldn't "stop the bullies at school," nor could she stop people from breaking into the house and "stealing my TV, my Nintendo, and my VCR," he said.
At 13, loneliness and frustration led him to join “one of Chicago’s largest street gangs” for four years. He said seven arrests and four different high schools didn't change his behavior, and so, as a community college student he found himself selling crack and pot while working as a stock clerk at Bed, Bath & Beyond, according to an interview with Choose 180 director Sean Goode.
But selling drugs, shelving obnoxious perfumes, and putting himself to bed with booze and pills was not the total expression of his being. Some summers his mother would take him to visit her family in Germany, where he was introduced to "a whole other world," one with much wider access to health care, housing, and free college education.
Later on he moved to Oakland to live with his dad, who had “evolved tremendously" by this time. Thomas said the two went to therapy together and engaged in a "restorative process," wherein dad told him the decision to leave had nothing to do with him. Dad helped Thomas recover from his addictions, and then put him on a path toward law school.
While studying law at Seattle University, his mock trial coach, former King County Senior Deputy Prosecuting Attorney and Seattle City Attorney Criminal Division Chief Graig Sims, convinced him to become a prosecutor, arguing that the profession needed people who understood the issues that brought people to the court house, people "who have actually been a victim of crime, and who have actually caused harm," he said.
And so he decided to jump in.
Life on the inside
Thomas started at the King County Prosecuting Attorney's Office in 2010 as a Rule 9 intern and became full-time deputy the following year. He worked as a trial attorney for six years, doing rotations in "General Felonies, Domestic Violence, and Sexual Assault."
During that time, he learned the ways the system failed the people it aimed to rehabilitate.
To illustrate that point, Thomas told two stories; one that hit close to home, and another that would haunt any prosecutor.
He said one of the first people he prosecuted was a Black teenager who had caught a case for stealing a flat screen TV. The case was weak, but he said his supervisors pegged the teen as an “up-and-coming gang member.” They wanted him to take the case to trial to build up some criminal history on the kid, so that when he became an adult they could "put him away for as long as possible."
Thomas tried the case, and he lost it. Afterwards, he approached the teen and told him the trial was “nothing personal,” just his job. That attempt to bridge the divide between prosecutor and defendant drew an admonishment from his supervisor, who warned Thomas that the kid would be back.
Sure enough, the teen did return to court on other charges. Curiosity drove Thomas to look up the kid’s history, which led him to his father’s criminal history, which included several domestic violence cases. In one of those cases, a police report mentioned a five-year-old boy who had observed his dad severely beating his mom.
“As a prosecutor we see that kid as a victim. But then ten years later, when he’s dealing with the trauma of the event without any support, without any services, without any connection, we’re trying to prosecute him and send him to prison for as long as possible. That type of culture and that type of mentality has to be uprooted," Thomas said.
Another time, he prosecuted a homeless, mentally ill man who cops arrested in Bellevue for assaulting a police officer in a drunken episode. Thomas asked for the highest sentence he could for the crime, and the judge gave it to him. But jail didn’t seem to solve the homeless man's problems. About six months after his release, the man stabbed and killed a random person in a Burger King.
After that killing, the homicide unit contacted Thomas’s office and peppered him with questions. “The main question they were asking me was, ‘Did you ask for the highest sentence possible? Did you use the tool that we have in our tool belt — this blunt instrument of incarceration — and did you use it to the highest degree possible?’ They never asked me, ‘Did you try to get this dude some help? Did you try to address his mental health issues? Did you try to address his housing issues? Did you try to surround him with any community support?”
That incident pushed Thomas to look for answers to the questions he wished the officer in that unit had asked him, which led him to volunteering for Choose 180, a pre-filing diversion program that served 13-17 year-olds at the time.
Thomas said he became a bridge between the prosecutor's office and the community Choose 180 served, as well as "a relentless voice for change within the office.”
He cemented his belief that the office should exhaust "all other options" before employing that blunt tool of incarceration. "The reality is that there are people who do need to be incapacitated," he said, but he doesn't think it should be the first choice or the go-to choice.
He also started noticing inconsistencies between Satterberg’s public portrayal as a progressive prosecutor — especially when it comes to drug prosecutions — and the cases that landed on his desk. And after asking for bail "for hundreds of people who were poor," he started pushing back on the practice. In response, Satterberg promoted him to director of community justice initiatives, where he said he became the first Black man to serve on the county prosecutor's executive team.
On that team, he said he discovered the cause for the discrepancies between the department’s rhetoric and its actions: Mark Larson, the long-time chief of the criminal division, who retired in December of 2019. According to a July 2020 list of proposals from the King County DPAA Equity & Justice Workgroup to criminal division leadership, that dynamic led to, among other things, retention issues of "prosecutors of color who feel like there has been a bait-and-switch." Thomas said he left the office before the deputy attorney wrote that letter, but pointed to that issue as "one of the reasons" he left the office the year before.
After a "four-month sabbatical traveling through Asia," he joined a prosecutor training organization called Prosecutor Impact as director of strategy and implementation. While working that gig he lived in New Orleans with his wife as she finished up a course to become a hospital chaplain. He then returned to Seattle in October of 2020, and started teaching law as an adjunct at his alma mater.
Okay, so what does he want to do as prosecutor?
Thomas stressed the centrality of his personal experience as the lens through which he views his work in the criminal justice system. "I am one who believes in redemption, one who believes you are more than the worst thing that you've ever done, and that you are more than the worst thing that has ever been done to you — and I know that not because I read it in a book, but because that's my life," he said.
That worldview, combined with his experiences in the trenches and in the executive branch of the office he seeks, would guide his policy goals as the head of the department.
First, he wants to rebuild trust with communities who want nothing to do with the system. For instance, rather than seek "material witness warrants" — a kind of warrant that allows cops to arrest witnesses to crimes — in certain cases, he'd focus on "doing the diplomatic work necessary to build trust and to get folks in to talk about the harm that was caused."
One of his other top priorities includes "redefining" what it means to be a successful prosector. At the moment, Thomas argues, too many prosecutors define success by the number of guilty convictions they stack up. That fear-driven performance indicator ignores recidivism rates, victim participation/satisfaction rates, and the amount of diversity within the department, all of which he'd want to emphasize as measures of success under his leadership.
Though the prosecutor's office can't build homes for people, Thomas still thinks the department could play a larger role in the conversation on homelessness, too. For him, that would look like training prosecutors "to understand and identify the needs of homeless folks" who interact with the system.
He'd also advocate to expand diversion programs and end cash bail while looking for money to build "a community-based pretrial services program."
In those cases where diversion fails to keep people out of prison, he'll push for more educational opportunities and services for people in custody. "If you shoot and kill people, if you are a serial DV abuser, if you commit sexual assault, if you’re into child pornography, if you are abusing children" then you'll be incapacitated, he said. But at the same time, he doesn't want to waste that "opportunity" for rehabilitation.
Thomas would take a neighborhood-by-neighborhood approach to addressing gun violence, which increased last year.
And as for the dreaded backlog of 4,000 cases that built up as a result of the pandemic, Thomas said he's noticed "a lot of fear-mongering" about it. He'd demand an "an open and transparent audit of these cases so that we know our resources are going towards individuals who pose the greatest risk to public safety" rather than just greasing cogs in a machine that "just a year and a half ago all of our county partners agreed had a history of racism." Concretely, he'd prioritize the big stuff — "our most vulnerable victims, especially children who have been abused, sexual assault, DV, and murder cases" — and also on the people currently languishing in our COVID-infested jails. After that, "our default should be an alternative and/or dismissal without prejudice [a result that would leave the case open] with incarceration with jail/prison being a last resort."
Above all, Thomas said, he aims to "lead with a heart of compassion" as the prosecutor not just for Seattle, but for all of King County.