“I think the modern prosecutor has to recognize the humanity behind every case file.”
“On my 27th birthday, I had my first murder trial as a prosecutor.”
Dan Satterberg has been working to uphold the safety of the residents of Washington state’s King County since 1985. After several years as a trial attorney in the office’s criminal division, Satterberg was tapped to serve as chief of staff to then-Prosecuting Attorney Norm Maleng in 1990. He held this position for 17 years before being elected to take his late mentor’s place as King County’s top prosecutor in 2007.
Now, after more than three decades as an attorney and ten years in public office, Satterberg is one of the country’s most time-tested, forward-thinking prosecutors. In his many years serving King County, Satterberg has developed a community-oriented set of principles and practices that inform his approach to criminal justice and his role in the system—and how he can continuously expand and reimagine that role.
“Public safety demands public participation,” he said. “The demands of the community change, and you have to change with them.”
Satterberg is dedicated to engaging the 2.1 million residents of King County in order to truly solve the public safety concerns they face everyday. The court system, he notes, is limited in the solutions that it can offer. Many of his office’s most successful initiatives have come from bold community partnerships and a commitment to identifying the people whose cases can be dealt with the most effectively outside of the justice system—ultimately ensuring that his office’s finite resources are reserved for the most serious, violent cases.
This approach has borne fruit. One example is King County’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program, which offers people convicted of drug offenses the opportunity to seek treatment for addiction or mental health issues, instead of serving jail time. The program offers a unique intervention as soon as people become involved with the justice system, and empowers police officers to help determine appropriate candidates for diversion. A 2015 study conducted by researchers at The University of Washington found that LEAD participants were 58% less likely than to be arrested than similar defendants who had been processed through the criminal justice system. In the seven years since its inception, LEAD has also helped reduce drug-related prison sentences overall. Currently, only eight percent of Washington’s prison population is incarcerated for a drug offense.
DA Satterberg’s commitment to listening to and learning from the people of King County also shaped a rehabilitative “peacemaking circle” pilot initiative. Peacemaking circles draw on the restorative justice principles of tribes native to the region, and aim to engage juvenile offenders in discussion and conflict-resolution through a process that leads to full accountability. Turning to restorative justice rather than putting kids in the harsh environment of a detention center might be a bold move for a republican elected official. But it has coalesced a diverse group of supporters including public defenders, probation officers, Seattle School District representatives, victim advocates, and faith leaders.
This reflects Satterberg’s approach to his role as a minister of justice, whose responsibilities far exceed those explicitly articulated in his job description. His reform initiatives like LEAD, mental health diversion, and peacemaking circles reflect a broader set of goals for his office, which include:
Keeping people from needlessly entering the justice system and devoting resources to the most pressing public safety threats;
Supporting prison alternatives and treatment options for people struggling with drug addiction and mental illness;
Pursuing smart sentencing reforms and release options to alleviate the burden on the state’s prisons and to reduce racial disparities in incarceration;
Pushing for reforms to prisons to ensure they can truly rehabilitate the people they temporarily house;
Carefully considering re-entry policies and collateral consequences of incarceration.
“When you see people as people, as members of families and communities and not just casefiles,” Satterberg said, “it makes your job a lot more complicated—but your approach more thoughtful.”
Mr. Satterberg’s work is far from done. Washington, like many other states across the country, is facing a crisis of prison overcrowding. The prison population in the state has steadily increased for years and is projected to reach 20,399 – 1,400 people over design capacity – by 2024. Washington’s prisons also reflect a startling racial disparity: although only four percent of the state’s population is African American, African Americans make up 18 percent of the state’s prison population. And, as the county’s “new class” of reform minded prosecutors settle into their roles, this original reformer is imparting the lessons he’s learned during a decade of service to newly elected prosecutors from places as diverse as Cook, Harris, and Orange-Osceola counties. “The more the [district attorneys] get together and talk about their work, the more creative we can be,” he said. “More and more, I think the modern prosecutor has to recognize the humanity behind every case file.”