The two men vying to replace longtime Spokane County Prosecuting Attorney Steve Tucker touted competing advantages at a debate downtown Wednesday night.
Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Larry Haskell, running for the GOP, said his 16 years of experience in the office and assisting federal prosecutors should make him a clear favorite over his opponent. Democratic candidate Breean Beggs, a private practice civil attorney who led the Center for Justice for several years, said he would bring fresh ideas to the office that would upend the status quo.
The two met at the invitation of the Democrats of the 6th Legislative District, who hosted the event at Spokane City Hall for a crowd that nearly filled the council chambers.
Haskell and Beggs offered competing ideas on how to solve problems ranging from overcrowding at the aging Spokane County Jail to perceptions of waning public trust in the wake of lengthy officer-involved shooting investigations. Providing backdrop to all the discussion was the so-called “Blueprint for Reform,” a report by the Spokane Regional Criminal Justice Commission released in December that recommends sweeping changes to the way the county prosecutes and incarcerates its criminals.
Beggs said he would advocate wider use of electronic monitoring for nonviolent offenders and greater use of alternative resolutions to ease crowding at the county jail.
“We can use that at about $8 to $10 a day instead of $130 a day,” said Beggs, adding that the jail also should increase its efforts to screen inmates all hours of the day to determine who needs to be imprisoned.
Haskell said the county should not go overboard on releasing offenders to home detention, which often doesn’t deter crime.
“I’ve seen, in my experience, that people can sling a lot of dope out of their house with an ankle bracelet on,” Haskell said.
The deputy prosecutor said he supported some alternative sentencing options, including the court’s early case resolution docket, an effort to more quickly identify cases that won’t go to trial.
“We’re doing sentencing alternatives, and that is what the heart and soul of smart justice is about,” Haskell said.
While the county has made strides in recommending cases for these alternative paths, Beggs said, more communication between public defenders and deputy prosecutors is key to expanding the program and easing overcrowding.
Increasing public trust
Questions from the audience Wednesday focused on the recently formed Spokane Police Ombudsman Commission and the potential for even greater civilian oversight over lengthy prosecutorial decisions on officer-involved homicides.
Haskell said it was important for the prosecutor’s office to maintain its presumption of impartiality in making those decisions, and for prosecutors to “get it right” rather than rushing to a decision.
“The office has to overcome a very high standard,” Haskell said. “Some people have asked, ‘Is it possible that all these officers were right every single time?’ Well, yes it is when you consider the available defense.”
Haskell said prosecutors would need to find evidence of “evil intent” to file charges in an officer-involved shooting case.
Beggs, who worked for the family of slain janitor Otto Zehm during his time at the Center for Justice, said he would more frequently call in the state Attorney General’s Office in officer-involved homicides to remove the appearance of bias. He also said he’d hire deputy attorneys who specialized in use of force.
“It takes too long for everyone,” Beggs said of the current officer-involved charging process.
Haskell said he would not hesitate to call in the attorney general’s office if it was warranted, but said that should only be done sparingly.
Either Haskell or Beggs will replace Tucker following the election in November, becoming Spokane County’s first new prosecuting attorney since 1998.
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