An interview with King County Prosecuting Attorney Leesa Manion and Senior Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Pete DeSanto (Part 1 of 2)
By Nikki Bryant, Sophia Dang, Samba Gueye, Tora Ogata, Rolando Smith, and Boi Hoa Tran, University of Washington Bothell School of Business
Photo Credit Leesa Manion: King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office Photo Credit: Pete DeSanto
Amidst the crisp winter air, we stepped into the bright and chilly classroom, eager to begin our virtual interview with Leesa Manion and Pete DeSanto from the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s office.
Leesa Manion, a Korean-American immigrant, has made history by becoming the first woman and person of color to be elected King County Prosecuting Attorney Her identity is a mixture of identities that are underrepresented in society, and she is an inspiration to those who share her identity. As Manion joined the Zoom meeting, she appeared on the large main screen. Her office background was dimly lit and serene, adorned with artwork along the walls and a meeting table surrounded by dark chairs. She dressed in a black blazer with her black shoulder-length hair left untied, adding a touch of elegance to her appearance.
On the other hand, DeSanto’s office was smaller, with a plain white wall illuminated by natural light streaming from the window. He was nicely dressed in a clean suit and wore a headset, projecting an air of professionalism.
After exchanging warm greetings and introductions, it was revealed that Manion and DeSanto both pursued law school with a shared vision of empowering others to find their voice and serving vulnerable populations struggling with behavioral health challenges. As we settled into the interview, it was evident that both Manion and DeSanto were excited and ready to answer any questions we had. Their enthusiasm was contagious, and we quickly became engrossed in their discussion.
In one of your priorities listed in your website, you mentioned the complex challenge of providing effective and sensitive services. What are your current or future plans when it comes to providing more services that effectively support all individuals in the King County community based on their backgrounds and experiences?
LM: I had the great privilege and honor of meeting with a lot of different community groups,and one of the themes that repeatedly showed up was the desire for the community that we serve, that this office serves, to better understand our work, to have their expertise and their perspectives tapped and listened to. They wanted a seat at our table. Not only did they want to learn about us, they wanted us to learn from them. So, we have been working to figure out how to build those pipelines into the office. I’m fortunate that I inherited a really amazing team of lawyers and legal service professionals. We have really long-standing relationships with a lot of community-based nonprofits.
I also was one of the co-founding partners of Choose 180, which is a nonprofit that works to keep people out of the criminal justice system, and now they work on education equity issues as well. I serve on the board of the Urban League [of Metropolitan Seattle]. I served on the board of Pioneer Human Services, and I serve on the board of the Alliance for Gun Responsibility. Over the course of my 27 years in the office, I’ve built a lot of really amazing relationships in the community.
We still have a lot of work and opportunity. For example, we don’t have enough Latinx nonprofits, enough Latinx community members speaking to us and working with us. We have gotten better about tapping Black organizations and Black-led organizations to weigh into our work.
PD: It kinda comes back to what our mission is with the King County Prosecutor’s Office, and that’s to do justice. I reflect on that as I do my job on a daily basis, and we serve a diverse community. We support victims and families, and we hold individuals accountable. We have a number of ways that we can do that, from pre-arrest diversion to therapeutic courts. There are many alternatives to the traditional criminal justice system, and I feel privileged to work in some of those programs.
It’s important to recognize the services and the communities that they live in. One thing I really value from our office is to be innovative and creative and just making resolutions. When it kind of rolls back to being able to make an impact on the community, and to serve those victims, and to work with individuals that have behavioral health challenges in the criminal justice system, while at the same time, looking to increase community safety and reduce recidivism. I just think our office does a really good job of that.
In your experience, what percentage of cases do you believe have a significant connection to mental health problems? How do you balance meeting the mental health needs of the defendants with limited county budgets?
LM: I don’t know the exact number of charged individuals who struggle with mental health or co-occurring disorders. But, there are a great number of them. The way we, in the prosecutor’s office, encounter individuals with mental illness, I mean, sometimes we have people with mental illness who commit very serious, violent crimes. One challenge we are facing as an office are individuals who commit serious, violent crime, and they have been deemed incompetent to stand trial, which means that they are unable to appreciate the charges brought against them, or are unable to participate in their own defense. Sometimes those individuals are sometimes held in jail because of the serious nature of their crime, and the jail is not equipped to restore someone’s competency. That’s really a function of our state hospitals, Western State and the Department of Social Health Services also has some other treatment facilities.
At the other end of the spectrum are individuals who struggle with mental health issues and they’re committing crimes as a symptom of that mental health challenge or this behavioral health challenge.
PD: On any given day in the King County Prosecutor’s office, there could be up to 350 individuals [who] are pending competency. Which is what Leesa touched upon: there are mental health issues that have risen to a degree where there was a concern about whether the individual could understand the nature of the charge and assist in their own defense. We have a wide range of diversion and therapeutic court programs that we can refer to when we receive indicia, that maybe someone is struggling with these, and it contributed to their criminal behavior.
We have our Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion. We have our vital program: our Survivors First program, for individuals that are committing offenses, but maybe had a prior history of being a victim of a domestic violence offense. We have our community diversion program, our Legal Intervention Network of Care program, Therapeutic Alternative Diversion program, our regional Mental Health Court and regional Veterans Court, our King County Drug Court. It’s important to have a wide variety of diversions and therapeutic courts to refer to, because they all take a little bit of a different approach, and how they work with individuals to support them on their journey with their behavioral health challenges, and also have differing degrees of supervision depending on the community safety concerns we may have. Leesa is always advocating for those resources and why they’re so important. So, I appreciate it.
How do you plan to balance the victims’ needs to seek justice for harm perpetrated against them and the defendant’s mental health capacity?
PD: We have a lot of individuals that are referred to the regional Mental Health Court, where they’re victims of a crime. For example, we could receive referrals on a felony violation of a no contact order on a DV Offense, where the perpetrator was an adult son or daughter and the people that called the police are the victim. The protective party on a no contact order was a parent, a father or mother. We’ll receive information from our office that they were calling to get assistance from the police department. They knew that their adult son or daughter was going to be arrested. It was a domestic violence offense and could potentially be charged, but maybe they don’t want them saddled with a felony criminal history. We’re taking that into consideration when we’re making our decisions, whether to refer to the Regional Mental Health Court.
We have victim advocates at each stage of those. In our Regional Mental Health Court, Regional Veterans Court, we’re lucky enough to have a victim advocate within our unit that is communicating with those victims from opt in through the disposition of the case in Mental Health Court, and updating those family members or friends or victims of the crime on how someone’s progressing and where we are in the process and making sure they have a voice throughout.
What do you think are the most effective ways to address the needs of defendants with mental health issues in the criminal justice system?
LM: I think so much of it is really addressing the underlying condition. It’s addressing the behavioral health, the substance use disorder, the mental health disorder. It’s providing services and the tools individuals need to make different choices to develop new skills. It’s medication that helps people put anxiety and other behavioral issues to rest.
PD: I agree with what Leesa said. I think I touched upon it a little bit in regards to just having a wide variety of programs that we can refer to as criminal justice alternatives. Each of those programs takes a different approach in regards to supervision. It really kind of is based on, do we have community safety concerns, and taking into consideration the individual that’s in front of us and the charges that they’re charged with as well as their criminal history.
One of the things I really appreciate about the King County Regional Mental Health Court is the collaborative approach; that we have with other stakeholders to support individuals with behavioral health challenges. We’re staffing that and having discussions and working collaboratively to see if there’s a better way to assist this individual on their journey towards changing their lifestyle. Our probation officers have a mental health background, and are working with that individual on a routine basis, not only on their treatment components, but also with vocational skills and working with them to find permanent housing in the community.
You mentioned in your priorities that you were committed to offering services to address behavioral and mental health issues of chronic perpetrators. What are some organizations that you are partner with or plan to be partnering with, and in what ways do you work or envisage to work in tackling those issues?
PD: With public health, we work in tandem on our diversion, in therapeutic courts, with the King County Behavioral Health and Recovery division. We work with a number of different treatment agencies in the community. We need that because we need to serve individuals where they are at.
There’s a lot of individuals that are coming in that have co-occurring disorders and we’re having public health going and meet with them in the jail and they’re doing an assessment to see if inpatient treatment is recommended prior to being in the community, and where we’re working with a number of inpatient treatment providers as well. So I think the main thing there is, especially when you’re dealing with chronic perpetrators is, what can we do to facilitate change? What would be the change of circumstances if a person’s a chronic perpetrator, what have they had access to before? And why would there be a change now? And whether that’s a change individually or a change systemically, what are we doing that can make an impact for both the individual and the community moving forward.
The topic of mental health is known to be difficult to talk about. When discussing the issue with your peers, friends, and family, what is the main message you want to leave with them?
LM: I would say that mental health, behavioral health, chemical dependency, substance use, disorder, they’re all treatable conditions. I think that all of our therapeutic alternatives are designed to improve the circumstances and the behavior of individuals engaged in those programs. It looks different for each individual, but I think that those are very treatable conditions.
PD: This one is really close to my heart when I think about having those discussions with my family members. I’m a father of 3. Talking to them about how they are doing on a daily basis, and then talking to them about mental mental health and substance issues, seeing what we see in the news on a daily basis. Having those deeper discussions, in regards to why or how an individual may end up there. It kind of goes back to those things that I talked about before of why I appreciate working in the field that I do and in therapeutic courts and diversion in particular, because I do think we’re there by the grace of God go I.
The important thing is just being, from a father standpoint, just letting them know that I’m there. I’m available and I’m open to discussing anything that they want to discuss in regards to substance use, or mental health, and then talk to them about what we see in these communities. I look at a lot of these individuals that are vulnerable, populations that are homeless and struggling with substance use. You think about how they may have ended up there. And then how they may have lost those ties with their family or friends, and maybe even committed crimes against some of their family or friends, in order to self medicate, or to continue to use. It’s terrifying, and having an ability to make an impact on that community, while at the same time having an educated discussion with my family or friends, is essential.
During the online interview, Manion and DeSanto brought unique perspectives and experiences to their roles, making our interview a fascinating and enlightening experience. They demonstrated their impressive qualifications and suitability for the job. They displayed a vast knowledge of the legal system and exhibited genuine concern for individuals with mental health challenges. Their responses to every question were passionate and insightful. If one candidate was unsure of how to respond, the other was always able to step in and meaningfully contribute to the conversation.
This interview has been condensed for content and clarity purposes.
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.