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Prosecutor candidates promise fresh approach to criminal justice

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified who hired Larry Haskell to the Spokane County Prosecutor’s Office. Haskell was hired by Democrat Jim Sweetser in 1998. This story has been updated to correct the error.

Both candidates for Spokane County prosecutor promised change as they debated Thursday at a downtown candidate forum. The extent of those changes, and the person most qualified to make them, divided the two men vying to succeed Steve Tucker, who has held the office since 1998.

Private-practice attorney and former Center for Justice Director Breean Beggs touted his work with the Smart Justice campaign, which led to the lengthy “blueprint” for criminal justice reform that has been adopted in principle by city and county officials.

“I feel like I have a better understanding of it than my opponent because he’s been doing other things,” Beggs, a Democrat, told a crowd of roughly 100 people at the event hosted by Spokane Rotary Club 21. “I think I will do a better job of implementing it.”

Larry Haskell, the GOP candidate who has worked as a Spokane County deputy prosecutor for more than a decade, said both he and Beggs endorsed “the majority” of the plan. He said the prosecutor’s office has already adopted many of its platforms, including alternative resolution courts for drug offenders and veterans.

“We actually use a lot of the reform items and alternatives that my opponent has proposed to bring, we’re already using a lot of those,” Haskell said. If elected, he said, he’d ask the state Legislature for additional funding to pursue all “science-based” alternative sentencing options.

Haskell and Beggs both said the office needs to be more visible in the community than it has been under Tucker.

“I would make, have made and will make many decisions differently than Mr. Tucker,” Haskell said. “First of all, I’m going to be in the office more frequently.”

Beggs said he’d be more accessible to the media and the public to explain the way he runs the office.

“I’m going to be out there, talking to people,” Beggs said. “When the newspaper, or the television stations call and say we want your comment, we want to know, I’ll answer the best that I can.”

A new jail?

The blueprint calls for renovations to be made at the existing Spokane County Jail, which has been in operation for more than three decades. The report says construction of a new jail should be deferred as cost savings from other reforms and available jail bed space are evaluated.

Beggs said he believes building a new jail is unnecessary.

“We don’t need it, based on the evidence and information we have,” Beggs said. “Right now, 80 percent of the people in our jail are not serving a sentence. They’re waiting for some type of hearing.”

The blueprint calls for construction of a so-called “Community Corrections Facility,” co-funded by the city and county, that would be located near the jail and assist with community re-entry for low-level offenders.

Haskell said he would not rule out the need for a new facility. County officials have estimated a new jail could cost as much as $200 million, with $60 million in finance costs.

“My bottom line on the jail is this: The blueprint says implement the programs, calculate the cost savings and adopt a wait-and-see approach on the jail,” Haskell said. “And that’s what I advocate.”

High-profile cases

A Rotary member asked Haskell, who was hired to the prosecutor’s office shortly by Jim Sweetser before Tucker was elected, if he disagreed with any of his boss’s decisions and whether he’d challenged Tucker on a prosecutorial choice.

“There are decisions that we made to not prosecute, that I would have done differently, and there’s been decisions that we’ve made to prosecute that I fully support,” Haskell said.

One of those decisions Haskell said he supported was the prosecution of Gail Gerlach, a homeowner who shot and killed a man who was trying to steal his SUV in March 2013. A Spokane jury acquitted Gerlach earlier this year after finding the journeyman plumber had fired in self-defense.

“I believe that justice was done, because the community got to decide his guilt or innocence,” Haskell said.

Because the jury found Gerlach acted in self-defense, state taxpayers will pay a $220,000 legal bill for his defense.

Beggs criticized the lack of response from the prosecutor’s office after it was revealed Donald Phillips, the convicted murderer of a man at the downtown STA Plaza in June, had been released from jail on unrelated charges days before the stabbing occurred.

“I want to hear from the elected prosecutor when that happens,” Beggs said. “He says, ‘This is what happened, this is how we’re going to change it, and we’re going to take accountability to do it.’ ”

A deputy prosecutor said shortly after Phillips’ arrest on the murder charge that police had failed to turn over necessary paperwork to the prosecutor’s office to keep him in jail.

Reining in the budget

Spokane County will spend about $104 million of its budget this year on public safety. That’s about two-thirds of the $157 million the county will spend in total. The budget category includes animal control and other administrative services, as well as $11 million for the prosecutor’s office.

The County Commission controls the purse strings of the prosecutor’s office. But Beggs and Haskell offered their ideas on how to more efficiently spend taxpayer dollars on criminal justice.

Beggs said the prosecutor’s office needs to approach its policies with a private sector mindset, evaluating programs by looking at measures of recidivism and cost savings.

“That’s what I want to see in the office, that the commitment is not just to work hard and to be fair, but to get results that we can measure,” Beggs said.

Haskell said he wants better record-keeping on exactly where the money is being spent in the office so he can make clear pitches to the County Commission about what the office needs.

“We don’t have the budget that I wish that we’d have,” Haskell said. Better record-keeping would allow the prosecutor to get a “fair hearing” with county legislators, he said.

Haskell topped Beggs by nearly 15,000 votes in the August primary, earning 58 percent of the vote.

The outcome means that Haskell’s name will be listed before Beggs’ on the November ballot.


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