Yesterday Anita Khandelwal, the director of the King County Department of Public Defense, and Pete Holmes, the Seattle City Attorney, issue a joint letter publicly calling out Judge Ed McKenna. Judge McKenna has been on the bench since 2011, following a lengthy career as a prosecutor for the City of Seattle.
This public denunciation comes as a huge surprise, not only because it's such a rare sight, but because Judge McKenna is the presiding judge for all of Seattle Municipal Court. In this position, he not only handles a wide variety of cases in trial courts, but also has a hand in setting policies throughout Seattle Municipal Court.
Allegations brought forth center specifically around sentencing in criminal cases. The letter addresses Judge McKenna speaking privately with prosecutors, urging them “to request longer sentences” so that he doesn't look like a “bad guy” when imposing sentence's beyond what city prosecutor's recommended.
Among other general concerns, they address one specific incident in January of this year, where Judge McKenna went against the recommendation of the prosecutor, probation department, and public defender. Instead, he sentenced a man, who had been found guilty of a misdemeanor offense, to the maximum allowable sentence, 364 days in the King County Jail.
This, by itself is incredibly shocking. In all my time spent as both a prosecutor and defense attorney, I have never seen anyone be sentencing to the maximum allowed by law. After all, the data have been showing for years that lengthy sentences do nothing useful to deter crime. Rather, sentencing alternatives, such a drug courts and mental health courts, show much higher success rates in decreasing crime rates, specifically recidivism.
But no, the most shocking part about this particular allegation is that Judge McKenna invited a news reporter into the courtroom before the defendant was sentenced, specifically so he could make an example of this particular person. Using the judicial bench in order to make a political statement, at the risk of an individual's freedom, is perhaps the most concerning issue raised in this whole letter.
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