A New Public Safety Narrative Fuels Stephan Thomas’s Run for King County Prosecutor

by Mike Davis

This week, Stephan Thomas, a former King County prosecutor, announced he will run for King County prosecuting attorney. Thomas, who served as the office’s director of community justice initiatives until 2019, joins an expansive pool of candidates that includes current King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg’s chief of staff, Leesa Manion; King County Councilmember Rod Dembowski; and Federal Way Mayor Jim Ferrell. 

Satterberg, who served for 14 years, recently announced he will not seek reelection. The growing field of high-profile candidates likely indicates a competitive race. 

Councilmember Dembowski has a history of pushing for criminal justice reform, including efforts to end solitary confinement for juveniles. Mayor Ferrell, who has been in his current role since 2014, served for 16 years as a King County senior deputy prosecutor. He was head of the domestic violence court unit. Manion has been chief of staff for 15 years, but she has been in the prosecuting office for 27 years. She supervises a staff of 600, manages a budget of more than $80 million, and boasts an expansive list of accomplishments that includes securing funding for the “shots fired” unit that tracks shootings in King County. 

With a pool of experienced candidates all known for their work in criminal justice reform, how does Thomas plan on standing out from the pack? The answer is a combination of Thomas’ lived experience, growing up on the South Side of Chicago amid gang life and drug abuse, as well as his work with local community-based nonprofits rooted in restorative justice. As the King County director of community justice initiatives, he cultivated relationships with organizations like CHOOSE 180 and Community Passageways, which helped to shape his forward-thinking plans for how to bring a full-scale restorative justice framework to the King County prosecutor’s office. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

South Seattle Emerald: What made you want to run for prosecutor now? In Seattle, we just saw a lot of progressive candidates lose in our local elections. How do you feel about that, and where do you think you stand with voters?

Stephan Thomas: That’s exactly where I want to run. Because I think there’s this narrative that every single person does not want safety. That there is a class of folks who do and a class of folks who don’t. The reality is, we all want prosperity. That’s a guarantee. I’ve never met a person who said they didn’t want to have an abundant life. You do not get there without a solid foundation of safety. And right now, we have a criminal justice system that when you get into it, it actually makes it way more difficult for you to prosper, whether you’re a victim or whether you’re someone who causes harm. The reality is, you can’t get a job [if you are an offender], and you don’t get what you need to heal from your trauma [if you are a victim]. And that cycle is just going to continue. So, we have to step up and combat that narrative about what safety is and how you achieve it. Because right now, they’re telling us the only way to keep ourselves safe is to put you in a jail cell. I don’t believe that’s true.

SSE: What will your approach be? Outside of putting people in jail, what can you do to keep people safe?

ST: Wouldn’t it be amazing if we actually had some great stories coming out of the system? Like, stories of redemption? That’s why I put my story out there. Because it’s so important for folks to understand that you can start from a place of trauma, you can start at a place of being abused, and that you can grow and evolve. I got arrested seven times when I was a kid. The thing that helped me wasn’t the fact that I spent some time in a jail cell. It was being able to reconcile with my dad who had abused me … and being able to go to drug rehab, which I went to twice, because I didn’t get it right the first time, so I had to go again. … And for me, it was going to college. And once I’m in college, I had found a purpose, and I knew I had something to live for, and that I could actually make it. 

Why can’t that be the norm for folks that come into the system? Oftentimes, people come into the system under-resourced, then they leave under-resourced, and they never get what they need to actually succeed. It’s opportunity. 

So, it’s working with the brilliance in our community to figure out how we design processes, so that if you get arrested, if you touch the system, we can help you to get out of that situation. And the reality is, this is not something I’m coming up with. The people in the community are already doing this. All I’m going to do is be a prosecutor [who] has the courage and political will to say this is where our money and resources should go.

SSE: Seattle has a heavy influence on King County. We just saw Nicole Thomas-Kennedy run against Anne Davison, and our city seemed to side with the “lock ’em up” approach. Do you think our city, or our county, is ready for your approach?

ST: What they heard in that last election wasn’t someone who’s advocating for the building of new processes or new systems. What they heard was, and I’m not saying this is what was communicated, but [what voters] heard [was], “I keep you safe by locking them up,” and the other hand was, “I will do nothing, I’m just going to refuse to participate in this process.” And that’s not what I’m talking about at all. 

Hear me loud and clear: Where I grew up was the height of the war on drugs in the South Side of Chicago. When I was 7 years old, my neighbor broke into my house and stole my TV, my Nintendo, and my VCR. I didn’t need that man to go to prison. But I surely did need him to be held accountable, to get some treatment, and to move on with his life. And that does not exist right now, not to the extent and not to the scale that it needs to be.

So, we have to move forward. What does moving forward look like? It looks like investing in the things that right now are in their infancy. Things like Community Passageways, things like CHOOSE 180, things like treatment on demand, things like housing first. Those are the things that we know work. So why wouldn’t I, as a prosecutor, advocate for that?

And, with all that being said, there is a small class, a small percentage of people, those who are running criminal enterprises, those who molest small children, those who are into child pornography, and those who murder, rape, and pillage people; there’s no option for them other than prison and incarceration. Now, the question I’m going to be asking, though, is when you get to prison, what is going on? … Are you getting a trade? Are you able to go to college? Providing those things is possible.

But that’s a small percentage of people. What about the other people who are cycling in and out and in and out? Well, we have to figure out another way to do that. [Because] that’s expensive, ineffective, and is actually dangerous.

Stephan Thomas (Photo: Alex Garland)

SSE: You mentioned CHOOSE 180, and you mentioned Community Passageways. What is your experience with those organizations? Have you seen any success stories firsthand?

ST: I went to [CHOOSE 180] as a representative from the prosecutor’s office. I went in there, I took off my mask, and I was like, “Listen, this is who I am. I’m more similar to you than I am to these prosecutors in these offices.” And when I shared my story and I was open and honest about my journey, going from gangbanging and drug abuse into where I’m at now, that connected me with a whole community of people who are engaged in building restorative justice. So, I just started volunteering with them, hanging out with Dom Davis [of Community Passageways] and folks like that, and really just getting connected. I know a lot about the streets in my neighborhood in Chicago, but I didn’t know anything about how Seattle operates. … I had read about [restorative justice] in a book, and I experienced it with my dad, but it’s another thing to see if this can be a part of our regular process. I spent two years serving on the executive team at the prosecutor’s office where I was the director of community justice initiatives. My whole job was to build relationships with community-based organizations and start building out new restorative justice initiatives.

My issue, though, is that we focus so much on programs. A program is not going to solve it. It has to be the way that we do business. Incarceration should become the alternative. Everything else is the default. After I left the prosecutor’s office, I traveled around the country training prosecutors, facilitating what we call “experiential learning opportunities.” We would do things like take prosecutors to prison to meet folks who are currently incarcerated. One of the folks that I encountered was the Brooklyn district attorney’s office. In that office, for certain categories of crimes, and these are violent crimes, jail is the alternative. So you have to justify to your supervisor why jail or prison is appropriate and why not an alternative. You switch the default mode. 

[The Brooklyn program] focuses on people who’ve committed violent crimes, but they put them through a restorative process. The victim and the person who caused harm have separate processes. It’s robust, and it lasts like eight or nine months, and then they bring them together for a dialogue, and it’s all-encompassing. So it’s like, you need trauma therapy, they got that. You need healing circles, they got that. You need housing? Your mom needs things? We need to start actually healing. We need to think on a whole different level.

SSE: Often, when we measure the success of a prosecutor, it is based on wins and losses, which often leads to how many people are incarcerated. If you use your approach, how will you measure success?

ST: If you look at my website, one of my first platform planks says, “Redefine what it means to be successful.” After I left the prosecutor’s office, I designed leadership initiatives. I was part of a culture change organization called Prosecutor Impact. [On my website, you can find] a whole data-driven approach to success [for prosecutors]. And you can look at things, like reducing recidivism, or victim participation within the system. Because if victims don’t trust the system, that should be telling you something. We’re looking at the number of attorneys of color you have in your office, the retention of people in your office, it’s a whole list of measurements. Anytime someone gets arrested, it’s an opportunity for us to do some intervention. Not just process them through the system.

And now, we are starting to actually research what works [to keep our community safe]. Everyone discussing the coronavirus is saying follow the science. All I’m saying is the same thing. Can we follow the science? Follow what the research says. And then, let’s implement that. 

I’m not saying listen to me as a prosecutor and a lawyer, I’m saying let’s listen to Dr. Ben Danielson, one of the people who endorsed me. What are his thoughts on how we should be approaching the criminal justice system? That’s the type of folks that we need to listen to. What’s the public health response? If gun violence, as is said, is just like a disease, then we need to look beyond the answers of law enforcement to other entities. And I think we have to keep pushing and pushing that narrative. Otherwise, I think we’re going to be stuck in this place for another generation. And that would be an absolute shame.

SSE: I saw a recent article where you talk about your experiences with gangs, drugs, and abuse. Can you talk about how you made the shift toward being a prosecutor, and why?

ST: It’s not one factor. It’s a lot of different things. But let me walk you through a couple of them. When I was living in Chicago, I was with a bunch of my friends and we went to the lake. When we got there, we came across some rival gang. And I didn’t have a gun at the time, but one of my friends pulled out a gun. Then the other folks started pulling a gun. So when I saw that, I ducked behind a tree. And I don’t know what happened, or if people got killed. But all I heard was “pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop,” and everyone ran. And I ran too. In my neighborhood, ducking behind a tree and running, that is not OK. [And] that dude who shot at those folks a couple of days later came to my house and stole my car keys then broke into my car and stole my stereo. Now, in Chicago, that is a declaration of war on you. And it puts you in a situation where it’s kill or be killed. But I had another option.

I’m white too. I have a white mom. And that gives me access to things that people in my neighborhood could never dream of. My mom’s German, so I would take trips to Europe in the summertime. I went to great schools. I would go visit my grandmother, and she would sign me up for sailing lessons and rock climbing lessons and so on and so forth. So when that stuff went down, I was on the phone, “Grandma, I gotta get out of here.” She had me on a plane to California the next day. Not all my friends had that opportunity.

My dad also happened to live in California too. My dad was abusive. He beat me when I was a kid and told me I was stupid, and then he left my family. When I ended up moving out there, I started living with him. And he wanted to take me to counseling with him. So, I began to go to therapy with him. I heard his whole story. He was the son of an incarcerated man, and then he spent some time in prison when he was in the Army. So, I’m hearing all his stories of trauma. And he said, “Look, when I left, it had nothing to do with you. That was my stuff.” It blew my mind. Then he got me into drug rehab. When I was in rehab, faith came into my life. My mom was a professor at a school. So I was able to go to college for free, and my whole world is different. When I first went to college, I had cornrows, and I was still smoking weed and stuff like that. But I started to get education. I started digging more into my faith. And the more that I distanced myself from who I was, distanced from that traumatic experience on the South Side, the more I got safety, the more I had peace of mind, the more the anxiety that I was living with died down, I was able to hear another voice, and I call that the voice of purpose.  

And all I’m saying is, why does that have to be only from me? Because I had privilege? That’s not right. I have friends in prison who were in the same exact situation as me. They got robbed. And then they went out guns blazing, because they didn’t have a grandma to call on the phone. Now they’re sitting in prison. 
So, I guess my why is that just seems fundamentally unfair to me. I shouldn’t be where I am today and my friend in prison, simply because I had access to privilege when he did not. As I look at this prosecutor’s office, and as I look at what it could be, and I look at the harm it’s causing right now, and I look at my own experience, I have to speak up. I can’t be silent. So, I’m putting myself out there, putting it all on the line. I quit my job. I’m out here living by faith. And I don’t know if it’s going to work out. I don’t know if it’s going to resonate. But I just feel a call. I have to preach the good news. We can do a lot better than what we’re doing right now. So, I guess that’s my why.

M. Anthony Davis (Mike Davis) is a local journalist covering arts, culture, and sports.

Stephan Thomas at his King County home. (Photo: Alex Garland)

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