The Puget Sound region is counting on Seattle to fix its criminal-justice problems.
So it’s deeply disappointing that the repair process is starting with City Attorney Pete Holmes publicly attacking a judge seeking reforms.
Presiding Municipal Court Judge Ed McKenna perhaps strayed into a gray area by raising concerns about repeat offenders cycling through courts with little consequence. His perspective added credibility to reports — including our recent editorials — on failures of Seattle’s justice system to protect residents and businesses from rising crime in some neighborhoods.
But that did not warrant a public attack by Holmes and Department of Public Defense Director Anita Khandelwal, alleging that McKenna was tainting the court and should step down as presiding judge. In an April 24 letter provided to the press even before McKenna saw it, they demanded he change his behavior and said their departments won’t participate in bench-bar meetings until he gives up his leadership position.
This was a political hit. Coming after McKenna publicly voiced concerns about justice-system failures, it looks like retribution for McKenna threatening the status quo. It also sent a message to other judges that they best not speak out of turn.
One question is whether McKenna was seeking “harsh” sentences, or inquiring about a general dearth of jail sentences sought for crimes committed. A recent study of prolific offenders found Holmes’ office often agrees to little or no post-conviction jail time for repeat offenders, even if they violated terms of a prior release. Perhaps McKenna was asking prosecutors if they had forgotten something.
This spat bodes poorly for the task force Mayor Jenny Durkan formed to address concerns about prolific offenders repeatedly victimizing residents and businesses in some neighborhoods.
Will any member dare question the orthodoxy, which basically calls for diverting all but heinous offenders away from jail and into Seattle’s tangle of private, publicly funded social-service organizations? Of course, jails won’t fix the broader homeless and addiction crises, and courts play an important role connecting people to treatment. These social problems need more attention but don’t excuse serious, persistent criminal behavior by offenders competent to stand trial.
Will any other elected official dare speak the forbidden words that McKenna uttered, acknowledging that Seattle’s leniency and generous social services are attracting criminals from around the state and nation? He forgot the script saying it’s the fault of Jeff Bezos and evil homeowners who should make way for more apartments.
Between the time Durkan formed the task force and its first meeting last week, it was branded in a way that appears to soften focus on prolific offenders and increase emphasis on social problems. It’s now the “High Barrier Individuals in our Social Services & Criminal Justice System Policy and Planning Working Group.”
Durkan also created a parallel working group of elected officials including Holmes and McKenna. Both want to improve the system but can they cooperate after Holmes and Khandelwal blindsided the judge?
Especially noxious were insinuations that McKenna was wrong to invite a resident advocating for public safety and a journalist to observe sentencing. Holmes and Khandelwal had this wrong — the journalist issued a statement saying he came of his own accord. Either way, judges should invite journalists and citizens into their courtrooms. If the media and public were more aware of what happens in municipal court, there would be more accountability for all involved.
Public confidence in Seattle’s criminal-justice system is at a low point and not because McKenna is discussing problems from his vantage point, presiding over the state’s busiest courtrooms.
The Washington code of ethics for judges calls for them to act in ways that build confidence in the independence, integrity and impartiality of courts. All are equally important, according to Appeals Court Judge Linda Lee, chair of the state judicial ethics advisory committee.
To act with integrity, should a judge speak out about system failures affecting community safety, even if it risks raising concerns about impartiality? More details are needed about specific cases to know whether harm was caused.
But in going out on this limb, McKenna is building confidence that his court is independent from the City Hall political machine that’s failing too often to provide safety and civility.