Daron Morris, a career public defender in King County, said he wants to tackle the problem of mass incarceration—and he's coming after Dan Satterberg's seat to do it.
In the remaining two days of filing week, Morris will announce his run as a Democratic candidate for King County prosecutor against Satterberg, who has sat comfortably in the office for 11 years. Morris resigned from his King County public defense post on Tuesday to focus on the election.
"I don't have another four years to wait on the kind of fundamental change that I'm talking about," he told PubliCola late Wednesday.
Morris criticizes Satterberg for using "old tired approaches that we know aren't working," lead to over-incarceration, and disproportionately affect people of color and other vulnerable communities.
Morris said he wants to improve relationships between communities and law enforcement by getting communities more involved in creating policies, reduce penalties for certain crimes, speed up the trial process, and have more individualized approaches to handling crime and sentencing.
A graduate of NYU law school, Morris said he found his passion in criminal justice quickly and observed a broken system in New York under then-mayor Rudy Giuliani, who he said "fostered a culture of toxic prosecution." Since then, Morris has spent 20 years as a public defender, eight of them working for King County.
"My hope is that this campaign is going to really just be a way to empower the community to speak some truth to power," Morris said, "and that ultimately, when and if I win, it’s not just me coming and telling an established institution how to do things."
He also opposes the new King County youth jail and said that if elected, he would add his voice "to find a better solution."
"If I were prosecutor, we would not have 40 kids in there a day. We would have way less," Morris said. "There's going to be a horrific crime committed by a teenager in the future, and we need to be prepared for that. ...(But) we don’t want to build a facility for our worst imaginable case."
Morris has the backing of the Peoples Party and is likely to draw support from far-left voters. But he's facing an uphill battle against an 11-year incumbent who has enjoyed widespread support from other local officials and so far spent $77,000 on his campaign, according to the state Public Disclosure Commission.
Though Satterberg is Republican in a county dominated by Democrats, the longtime prosecutor has been praised for a number of more progressive policies; under Satterberg's lead, his office helped create the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, which directs those who committed low-level crimes into community-based services instead of jail.
He has been an advocate of undocumented immigrants who face challenges in the legal system; and he supported King County Council's move to offer legal aid to families during the inquest process, for when they lost a loved one in the hands of police.
Though Morris credited Satterberg for helping with LEAD, he said Satterberg has still overall "increased the number of hammers" available and criticized him for what he says are overly aggressive responses to crimes, such as car theft.
Morris said he wants to expand LEAD to other neighborhoods locally, engage with women personally on domestic violence cases, and stop delaying cases based on a prosecutor's personal availability—on low-level cases, he wants to switch to a horizontal staffing model, as opposed to one prosecutor staying on a single case, to speed up processing.
On the statewide level, Morris wants to advocate for eliminating mandatory minimum sentencing and returning some power in determining time served back to judges. He says prosecutors currently wield too much sentencing power, and often use plea deals to coerce people out of a trial to speed up the process and save money.
Morris said as a public defender, he has always cared about empathizing with trauma and what brought someone into the criminal justice system. In 2014, his wife died of cancer, leaving him to raise three children on his own; one of his daughter is a cancer survivor. He said thinking about that hardship, he knows he's lucky.
"I am supremely confident that if I didn’t have a stable income and the privilege that I have as a white cisgendered male, what I went through would’ve derailed me," he said.
Updated 3:08pm on May 17, 2018, to clarify Morris's position on plea deals.