“I don’t think any child should be in a jail” — An Interview With Daron Morris

by Guy Oron

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity

Daron Morris is a 20-year public defender. He is running for King County Prosecutor to unseat Dan Satterberg, a two-and-a-half-term incumbent. I sat down with Morris in a Beacon Hill coffee shop to ask him about his background and stance on important issues affecting Seattle’s South End.

Guy Oron: Could you tell me a little bit about you and what your background is?

Daron Morris: I was a public defender for 20 years, that’s definitely defined my life. I moved out here in 2001. I think [I] moved out here like two or three months before the towers fell, which was a very strange time to move out of New York City. I kinda fell in love [with] Seattle, started a family out here, and I’ve got three kids—girl, boy, girl. But I’ve been out here ever since. I did a bunch of all-ages cases from non-violent to homicides and such. And then I took a break from public defending briefly and came back as a supervisor. I think that is a job I really fell in love with, the leadership and development.

I’d say I’ve always been a political person, but it’s really more recently in the last couple of years, with everything going on in the country, honestly that I’ve become more political. Some of that has been that my family has struggled with so much illness—my wife passed away in 2014 after she lost a battle with cancer. Before that, my daughter had cancer, leukemia. So right after we got her through that my wife had her own struggle. So really just like challenges of work and raising a family. I was not less political, but I wasn’t really very actively political, until a couple of years ago, of course, everything went nuts. I’ve also just been really inspired by a lot of what’s going on in local politics out here, and how accessible it is here, particularly coming from the East Coast, it’s amazing to me what a small town it is.

Daron Morris (Courtesy Photo)

GO: Why have you chosen to run for King County Prosecutor? What sparked that decision?

DM: Its 20 years of working in the justice system and really not seeing any fundamental change. I started out in New York City in 1998, when Rudolph Giuliani was the mayor at the time, and we had cases like Amadou Diallo, that would wind up with horrible situations when men were being murdered by the police. When I started, the New York City courts were full of delay, waste, high bails. Every single case seemed to be resolved by plea bargain instead of jury trials. And 20 years later, looking at the fact that Dan Satterberg is up for re-election and asking myself whether anything has really fundamentally changed.

I’m proud of some the changes I helped get done as a public defender, they were some real changes. But they weren’t transformative, they weren’t addressing the larger picture. I helped a lot of clients, I worked on reforming the mental health system, I worked on immigrants’ rights issues with Judge [Mary] Yu. But if I looked at it honestly, we still have money bail, we still have coercive plea bargaining, we still have people getting shot on the streets. Like, what’s fundamentally different? So that’s why I decided to run.

I hear people questioning why a public defender would run for prosecutor’s office, “are you just wanting to be soft on crime?” Frankly, I’m just really tired of that narrative. It’s old, it’s tired. It seems pretty basic to me that if you wanna have public safety, you need to have accountability on both sides. The prosecutor can’t just send people off to prison and demand accountability from the community if they’re not going to hold themselves accountable. So to me, the idea of, like, well, if you care about police violence, or if you care about a fair bail system, then you’re “soft on crime” to me seems ridiculous. If you really want to support real community safety then you need community buy-in and trust. You need community to have community safety.

I’m really hoping this campaign will serve not only to get us a new prosecutor but also to change those narratives.

GO: Do you think the “soft on crime” narrative is untrue?

DM: Yeah, I do think it’s untrue. If you look at my platform, we’re not soft on crime. We are trying to return the prosecutor’s priorities to prosecuting crimes that really represent a real security threat to the community. When people commit violent crimes, where people create horrible damage against community— that’s where our focus should be.

If we spend our time instead prosecuting people simply because they are poor or Black or Brown, that distracts from really prosecuting crimes that attack public safety. If you look at rape cases for example, the prosecutor’s office right now isn’t prosecuting enough rape cases. This is particularly true for women [who] are assaulted when they are intoxicated. Whether they’ve gone out to a bar and had few drinks themselves, or when someone is slipping something into their drinks. There has been quite a bit of press coverage about the prosecutor’s office not willing to hold those abusers accountable, and I’d like to see that increased.

And when you talk about money bail, you know if you’ve committed a serious crime, such as rape or murder or robbery (and you can’t just be categorical, you need to look at the facts of each case) but in a given case, if someone really represents a serious danger to their community if they’re released pretrial, that person should be held on a detention warrant, so that they can’t get out regardless of whether they are rich or poor. It shouldn’t be that if you have a serious security threat, you set a $100,000 bail so that the rich person can get out but the poor person can’t. That’s not what security is.

And if you look at our laws and our available tools, if someone has really committed a serious crime and is a real threat to the community, then they are supposed to [get] a detention warrant and not a money bail.

GO: Do you support the new youth jail? Why or why not?

DM: I don’t, I absolutely don’t. I don’t think any child should be in a jail. Children shouldn’t be in the current facility, and they shouldn’t be in the new facility either. Both facilities are deeply wrong. We should be making every effort not to tear children away from their families.

[Dr Trupin] noted that 112 beds is way, way above what’s needed by any measurement. And he noted that the current construction plans—that [the new jail is] still basically a jail with jail cells and jail cots. I mean you might have a little bit of nice furniture or open air environments here and there, but none of that is changing the basic facts that it’s a jail.

I really think that whatever we do for youth justice has to be very creative, community driven, and we have to push ourselves really hard to have some ingenuity about it. Some people point out that kids are gonna commit horrible crimes. And when they do, we’re obviously not just going to return them the same situations. If a kid gets arrested for murder, we’re gonna do something with that child to intercept that situation. Then we need to have public safety and security around those situations. But first of all, we don’t even have 112 of those situations a year—not even close, those are the exceptions. We can put kids in secure situations without jailing them. So for me the operative word is security. Let’s have security for the community, for victims of crimes, and for that child. And to me that fundamentally does not mean a jail. We know jails are harmful, so let’s not build them.

And what could we build besides a jail? First of all, I’d like to see the community drive that discussion, not me. What we could have [are] real, community-located places for children and youth justice. I don’t think we even think we need a centralized, youth justice facility. I’d like to see judges and the justice system out in the community, located in the community and not in some giant facility. It makes it hard, especially if you’re living in Federal Way, to have to keep coming down to what is nearly the downtown [Seattle] area.

GO: The incumbent prosecuting attorney has advanced diversion programs such as LEAD, and under his watch the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s office has partnered with organizations including Choose 180 and Community Passageways to mitigate youth incarceration. What do you think of these efforts, and how would you build off these efforts?

DM: Those are good efforts. Looking at those on their own, those are good, smart, community-driven efforts. The problem I have when we’re talking about those efforts isn’t about the programs. The problem I have is how Mr. Satterberg is using those programs to say he’s done enough. LEAD only reaches a couple of hundred people—about two to three hundred a year. Drug diversion courts are about the same. And meanwhile, we’re filing 7,000 felony charges a year. So those programs are wonderful and they need to be expanded, but they don’t define what we’re doing right now, in general. The bulk of what we’re doing is the opposite. The bulk of what we’re doing is an institutional approach.

We do need to expand those, and so the question is how do we expand them and where do we get the money. The amount of people we are holding in jail right now and the amount of time that it takes to resolve cases involved—we could reduce both these numbers. And if we got those cases moving quicker, with less people clogging up our county jail, we’d save a lot of money, and we could use that money to expand diversion programs. And when I say move those cases through the system more quickly, I don’t mean ram them through. But what’s going on right now is that the prosecutor’s office really slows the case progress down, so that people have to wait a really long time for their day in court. We can’t have that. I think we can cut that down by about a quarter or a half, and if we did that we’d have a huge amount of money to spend on, and we could have more diversion programs.

GO: Do you think the criminal-legal system is fundamentally broken? Would you break the mold of a typical prosecuting attorney and instead push for transformative change? What does transformative change towards justice mean to you?

DM: I think our criminal justice system has been fundamentally co-opted by a war against poor people. Back in 1970, we had prison population was one sixth, about 15 or 20 percent of what it is today. The reason why — the last 50 years — we’ve seen such an expansion of the criminal justice system is not because it’s needed, it’s because we’ve allowed our criminal justice system to be used to criminalize poverty.

That’s what money bail does, that’s what sending good people to prison for very long sentences for low-level crime does, that’s what all of this systemic racism which is deeply baked into our criminal justice system does.

And Richard Nixon started [mass incarceration], and he started that deliberately because he realized he wasn’t gonna get the white Southern vote. Richard Nixon was a Republican who wanted a strong federal government, and to get the white Southern vote on that—we all talk about the New Jim Crow, we’re all very familiar about this, right? So for me that should give us a lot of urgency about really addressing that. We can’t talk about the New Jim Crow for—I think it’s almost 10 years now—and still be talking about things like LEAD, low-level drug offender diversion, because LEAD is not addressing the New Jim Crow. We could put every low-level drug offender into diversion tomorrow, and we’d still have the same basic problem, which is that our criminal justice system has been co-opted to engage in a war against poor people.

So, if we can take our criminal justice system back so it’s not doing that and so that it’s actually oriented around real public safety values, then it’s not broken anymore. So I wouldn’t say that it’s fundamentally broken so much as it is fundamentally stolen from us by people who want to wage a war against poor people, and Black and Brown people.

GO: How has your campaign centered itself in community? What is your relationship with communities which are most impacted by over-policing, such as communities of color, such as the South end?

DM: We’re trying to run a campaign that hopefully speaks to these issues that I know the community is very concerned about. We’re taking opportunities to be out here in community, to show up at events and in protests to get community-driven needs.

I have lived in Seattle for 20 years, and I would say I really haven’t been out in the community, I really haven’t been out in the South End. I’ve had a very sort of work-focused professional career, and raising children. It would be false for me to say that I come from community. I’ve been working and I’ve been raising a family. I’ve been a public defender and I’ve dedicated myself to my community through that, but things have really changed recently. We’re just trying to really be out there.

My most guiding thought on this is just to really show up and show up when it counts. To be out there, particularly when we see these injustices happening, like when we had the supreme court decisions on the travel ban, and the Janus decision on labor unions, to get out there and march with people. I’m meeting a lot of people from the community in this campaign and that’s been really great, and I think we need to do more.

GO: King County is embroiled in a corruption scandal involving accepting money from an anti-sex-work organization. The Prosecuting Attorney office is accused of harshly prosecuting sex workers following this donation. Do you stand in solidarity with sex workers? If elected, would you support decriminalizing sex work, especially in light of the recent FOSTA law?

DM:  Yes, I would absolutely support the decriminalization of sex work—which is not what we’re doing right now. I met with a number of sex workers, and you asked about how we’re connected to community, this is one example of that. We met with folks from SWOP [Sex Workers Outreach Project] and other sex workers from the local community, and actually we sat for a radio interview with KUOW. It’s absolutely true that these sting operations that we’re running, even if we’re not arresting prostitutes in the same way that we used to be, the fact that we’re criminalizing prostitution is driving prostitution and sex work underground, and making sex workers less safe. That’s the problem with SESTA and FOSTA, that’s the problem with the John sting operations.

And it’s wholly inappropriate for the prosecutor’s office to take money from special interest groups, particularly with all the strings attached to that money. That money came with control over operations and control over public communications and messaging. The prosecutor fundamentally needs to be accountable to the people of King County and not some moralistic special interest group.

GO: In 2017, we learned of Ed Murray and John Urquhart’s harmful pattern of sexual violence—and of the way this violence was covered up. These revelations showed an entrenched rape culture in much of King County and local government leadership. How would you work to end this culture and bring real accountability to unaccountable people in leadership?

DM: I think, fundamentally we need to have a culture in the prosecutor’s office that really listens to what women are saying. When women have the courage to come forward and say “I was assaulted, I was abused, I got hurt, I got violated,” we need to listen to them. And when I talk about how the fact that prosecutor’s office has ignored the voices of a number of women on some rape cases, you know I’m talking about that too.

We’re at a really powerful moment in our history right now where we have an opportunity to really listen when a women, or anyone, says “that wasn’t okay, I didn’t invite that, that crossed the line,” and to really call it out for what it is. I think we still have this tendency to say, “well that’s not rape culture, that’s just… .” You hear these things, and this was in that article about the rape cases that weren’t prosecuted by Mr. Satterberg. A rape victim was told, “just because you were taken advantage of doesn’t mean you were raped, those aren’t the same thing.” That’s a horrible comment to say, that promotes rape culture. This notion that “boys will be boys” or that men taking advantage of women is fundamentally different than sexual abuse, we need to break out of that.

Featured Image: Daron Morris attends an immigrant rights rally. (Courtesy Photo)

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