An interview with King County Prosecuting Attorney Leesa Manion and Senior Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Pete DeSanto (Part 2 of 2)
By Christine Truong, Thao Pham, Thejas Jebanathan, Abigail Habtom, Bahador Fathi, Joel Yim University of Washington Bothell School of Business
Leesa Manion and Pete DeSantos. Pictures courtesy of the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office
On a brisk Tuesday afternoon, the smell of citrus and chocolate was in the air. As we entered the classroom, Professor Umetsu offers oranges and chocolates on the table to sate our appetites. Our group shifted to an optimal position with our laptops ready to conduct our virtual interview with Leesa Manion, the newly elected King County Prosecuting Attorney.
As students and guests arrived, we awaited Leesa Manion’s appearance on the large screen in front of the classroom. Her name pops up in the form of a notification, and that’s when we noticed her strong presence, warm smile, and a warm tint on her camera. Behind her, we can see a quiet office environment. She’s dressed in a red floral printed blouse under a black blazer, her brunette hair cut in a long bob hairstyle covering her hoop earrings.
A few moments later, we hear an all too familiar ding revealing a second guest: King County Senior Deputy Prosecutor, Peter DeSantos. As he appeared with a welcoming presence, juxtaposed to his blurred background. Donning a button down shirt under a navy blue blazer, he smiles brightly with a headset on ready to answer any questions thrown at him. The natural light from his windows hits him from his left as he prepares to join Leesa in this interview.
What’s your process like for when you set goals pertaining to your career?
PD: You have to make them both short-term and long-term and you have to look at what are the immediate goals that I want for my team here in the prosecutor’s office. Taking a critical eye, and also being open to receiving feedback and constructive criticism, so that we can better our practice as far as career goals and looking long term.
How can we be better? How can we do our job better? What are the things that we’re doing now that we could do better? Am I still making an impact in what I’m doing? I wouldn’t be in this work if community service wasn’t important to me. And is my work valued? And do I feel value in my work?
What are the procedures you would think of to assess defendants’ mental health?
PD: Legal competency is under RCW (the Revised Code of Washington), 10.77, and that has to do with whether an individual has the ability to understand the nature of the charges, and assist in their own offense. That is the foundation for whether someone is able to proceed with a criminal proceeding. If they’re not, depending on the level of offense that they’re charged with,they could undergo restoration, at which time they would come back, and then another assessment would be done by the judge to determine if they were competent or not. After receiving information from a forensic evaluator, if the individual was deemed to not be competent, the case would be dismissed and referred for civil commitment proceedings. Either at Western State Hospital or through the community through a designated crisis responder.
In regards to assessing mental health or behavioral health challenges, and how that may impact how we decide to proceed with the case, that’s a little different. We don’t have interactions that defense does with the individual that’s in front of us as a prosecutor. So, we’re really relying upon the information that’s provided in the police reports and the information that might be provided in a mitigation packet from defense in order for us to make educated decisions in regards to if we’d be willing to refer an individual to one of our criminal justice alternatives in cases where we think that might better serve the individual and the community.
Before this meeting today, I just was down at the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Center speaking with law enforcement agencies regarding our therapeutic courts and our diversion programs in regards to why they might want to consider those as valuable options for individuals that they’re referring to our office for filing of criminal charges. For example, are they receiving information from a family member that this individual was off their medication at the time the incident occurred, or was struggling with some substance use, and putting that into their report? Those are the types of things that we try and do on a routine basis, just to make our community and our law enforcement partners and our defense agencies aware.
How many cases would you say in King County are caused by underlying mental health problems?
PD: I think it would be easier to probably count the number of cases where there wasn’t a mental health issue or a substance use issue, that was involved in the crime itself, or that the individual was struggling with at the time that crime occurred.
After COVID-19, would you say the mental health, or the mental illness convictions increased?
LM: The thing about the pandemic is that because of closed courthouses, social distancing, and closed wings of the jail, I think a lot of individuals had reduced access to the very services that they needed to keep chemical dependency issues in check or to keep mental health issues in check. When someone spirals out in a kind of downward place because of mental health or substance use disorder it takes much more work to get them to a place where they’re stabilized. When you have more work from a number of individuals who are requiring access and services at a time when treatment facilities have an all-time low in terms of capacity. That’s just like a perfect storm.
PD: For sure, I think it’s important not to put a blinder up into how the covid pandemic has affected all of us. We all just went through a 2 year period of isolation that none of us were necessarily prepared for, and some of us were lucky enough to have more resources or services available to us than others. I think it disproportionately affected the vulnerable community, and you know, we see that. I think we’re trying to keep that into consideration when we’re making our decisions in regards to how we proceed with cases, especially on those lower level offenses.
What strategies do you plan to use to keep youth with mental illness in school and on the pathways to success?
LM: Just last Friday, a group of leaders from my office in the Juvenile Division worked with school leaders to have a forum. To get school resource officers, court officials and prosecutors on the same page about the types of services that are available, how to find students who have unenrolled from public schools.
Long ago we worked with court and school officials to put a hold or stay on truancy petitions, which school districts filed in court. They play out in our juvenile justice system, and that’s how schools get money to fund the very personnel and services to help keep kids in school. It’s a really kind of messed up system, but it’s what we inherited. So we knew that there wasn’t a lot of value in calling young people and their families before judges so that the judge could say you should go to school.
That’s why it was so important that we work together and said, “let’s put a stay on the petition” so that there are no more court hearings. Instead, let’s work at the school level to ensure that we’re offering services in communities close to families, close to young people with known resources and individuals that they trust.
During your response to Erica C. Barnett from Publicola, you mentioned that you believe in the value of the Drug Court, Veterans Court, and the Mental Health court. And you believe that you should provide increased access to all 3 of those therapeutic courts and also offer more community-based treatment options. So what kind of treatments did you think of?
LM: I think our therapeutic courts are an important piece of our treatment puzzle, and they’re important resources in our community. So we want to ensure that they are well-funded, that they are well-staffed [and] that they have the capacity to handle the great need that’s in our community.
I strongly believe that individuals should not have to encounter our criminal legal system in order to get the help that they need. That’s why it’s so important that we offer treatment on demand, and people should be able to walk into their local health clinic to get treatment, to be able to join a telehealth appointment to get mental health counseling, be able to walk in and get the type of treatment they need to kick substance use disorder, or to combat chemical dependency issues.
“We can’t [only] offer treatment for the criminal justice system because we will miss a lot of people, but then also, we’re asking people to commit crimes simply to get the help that they need.” – Leesa Manion
Will there be systems in place for people with mental illnesses and mental health issues that are already incarcerated?
PD: That’s one of the main focal points in regards to our LINC diversion program that I lead, as well as with regional Mental Health Court and regional Veterans Court — when individuals are incarcerated, we want to set up release plans that are going to set them up for success.
We want to make sure that upon release that there’s a warm hand off offered, that there’s care coordination to the community. It’s essential to have that warm hand off, and it’s essential especially to set those individuals up on a pathway to success when they’re trying to make lifestyle changes.
How does your commitment to a fair and transparent justice system address the needs of defendants with severe mental illness?
PD: Just being transparent, with our filing and disposition standards having open communication in regards to the progress of the case; once we’ve made a filing decision and talked to our victims and our witnesses we talk to law enforcement and get input from them prior to making decisions in regards to what our recommendations are going to be for the outcome of that case.
Then the education and outreach just like this interview that we’re having today and talking about the different criminal justice alternatives that we have available to us in King County and talking about what goes into making a filing decision, what goes into making a decision to refer to a criminal justice alternative. And then what does that look like once they come in?
LM: It starts with ensuring that our partners in public health, behavioral, health, chemical dependency understand what our filing standards are and what our values are. Because if we have partners that don’t understand when we file charges it can be really hard to get on the same page and ensure that people get the treatment that they need.
“We’re not going out for the longest sentence with the most enhancements to send someone to prison for a very long time. Those aren’t the goals or objectives of our therapeutic courts.” – Leesa Manion
Especially in our therapeutic courts, we have strong relationships with our public defense colleagues, because it’s really important for the individual who’s charged to understand what they are facing. That’s why competency is such an important issue in our community. I think also being really clear with our public about the purpose of our therapeutic alternatives and the types of results that we hope to see. We want someone’s condition to improve. We’re not going out for the longest sentence with the most enhancements to send someone to prison for a very long time. Those aren’t the goals or objectives of our therapeutic courts. So we need to be really clear about that.
Someone who is suffering from behavioral health issues who’s stealing alcohol or smashing windows because they are mentally ill, is not the same as someone who is maybe systematically preying upon a business or an individual.
“The average cost for psychiatric treatment in a community hospital ranges from $3,616 to $8,509, depending on the type of illness being treated. A simple calculation reveals that for an adult, the cost of 35 to 83 days in prison would provide the financing of a hospitalization that would have a better chance of bringing about recovery.”
The therapeutic courts of King County have been an essential part of promoting recovery, and reducing recidivism in order to improve the lives of the participating individuals and their families. These therapeutic courts have made it possible to address the underlying issue promoting criminal behavior, and diverse individuals from criminal court systems.
To learn more about King County therapeutic courts see here.
Choose 180 is a non-profit organization that transforms systems of injustice and supports the young people who are too often impacted by these systems. To get involved and support their mission, see here.
This interview has been condensed for content and clarity.
Special thanks to Jennifer Sanchez Tejada for her time and support for this piece. Special thanks also to Nikki Bryant, Sophie Dang, Samba Gueye, Tora Ogata, Rolando Smith, and Boi Hoa Tran of University of Washington Bothell School of Business for their peer editing assistance. This project was a collaboration between Professor Laura Umetsu’s Business Writing course at the University of Washington Bothell, The King County Prosecuting Attorney’s office, and NAMI Seattle.
Manion and DeSanto’s involvement in numerous local organizations and programs has highlighted their commitment towards advocating for the communities they serve. Information about the organizations and programs, and how you can get involved to support their missions can be found here:
Choose 180 focuses on educating young individuals on the impact of transforming systems of injustice, and how the systems impact them.
Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle provides programming and services that support numerous local communities focusing on: advocacy and civic engagement, education, housing, public health, and workforce development.
Pioneer Human Services provides assistance for individuals who are re-entering society from incarceration, along with those who are dealing with substance use disorders and mental health issues. They offer treatment, housing, and employment services.
Alliance for Gun Responsibility collaborates with civic leaders and citizens to develop evidence-based solutions to end the gun violence crisis in local communities. This organization also promotes a culture of gun ownership that also balances our rights with responsibilities.
Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion is a community program that diverts individuals who are engaged in low-level drug crime, prostitution, and crimes of poverty away from the criminal legal system; and towards services including substance use disorder treatment and housing
Survivors First directly works with survivor-defendants and victims of abuse to intervention services without criminal charges. They are in partnership with the YWCA and the King County Prosecuting Attorney.
Legal Intervention Network of Care works with individuals who have mental health issues that may prevent them from aiding their defense and provide the individuals with competency restoration services to proceed with criminal cases.
Therapeutic Alternative Diversion partners with the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office and the Department of Public Health to provide a connection to community-based services as a diversion program.
King County Regional Mental Health Court focuses on engaging, supporting, and facilitating the stability of individuals living with mental health disorders within the criminal justice system. The court regularly meets with offenders to assess their needs, provide feedback, and maintain accountability for treatment and probation conditions.
King County Regional Veterans Court provides support to veterans through addressing underlying issues that have resulted in the veteran being referred to the criminal justice system. The court strives to increase public safety by incorporating individualized treatment plans, innovative approaches for resolving issues, and close monitoring.
King County Adult Drug Diversion Court supports eligible defendants through providing substance use disorder and mental health treatments, along with access to resources involving housing, transportation, and job skills training.
We would like to extend our gratitude to Leesa Manion and Pete DeSanto for taking the time to interview with us about their advocacy in mental health issues. We would also like to thank Jennifer Sanchez-Tejada for working with us and providing feedback during our time together.
This project was a collaboration between Professor Laura Umetsu’s Business Writing class at the University of Washington Bothell, the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s office, and NAMI Seattle.