Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly described the mental health reforms candidate Larry Haskell is proposing to implement in the courts due to a reporter’s error. This story has been updated to more accurately describe his proposal.
A lengthy list of prescribed criminal justice reforms and the promise of the first new Spokane County prosecuting attorney since 1998 have conspired to attract intense interest – and dollars – to the race to replace retiring Prosecutor Steve Tucker.
Deputy prosecutor Larry Haskell, running on the Republican ticket, holds the edge after garnering 58 percent of the primary votes. But Democrat Breean Beggs, a civil trial attorney who claims victory in reforming the county’s criminal justice system from the outside looking in, holds the fundraising crown as the campaign enters its final month. Beggs reports more than $88,000 in contributions, and Haskell more than $70,000.
Both men have come out in support of the so-called “Blueprint for Reform,” a report that suggests reforms to the county’s criminal justice system.
The December 2013 report contains many of the suggestions proffered by Beggs, who worked with the Smart Justice campaign to push for increased use of alternative resolution options and cut down on the number of prisoners incarcerated for nonviolent crimes or for owing money. Beggs has given Haskell credit for supporting the changes contained in the blueprint, because initially “the county prosecutors didn’t really want to participate,” Beggs said in an interview earlier this year.
Beggs said he’s already worked to implement those changes as a private attorney. He currently is settling a class-action lawsuit in federal court brought on behalf of a Spokane woman who repeatedly was imprisoned at the jail because of money owed, without the option for a hearing before a judge and without receiving consultation with a lawyer.
The jail has since reduced the number of people imprisoned because of legal financial obligations to a handful, but Beggs said he wants that number to be zero. With the power of the prosecuting attorney’s office, Beggs said, those kinds of reforms would be fast-tracked.
“Everyone looks for the prosecutor to lead,” Beggs said. “For the last 12 years, that has not been the experience that most people have had.”
Haskell counters that the prosecutor’s office has begun to adopt recommended reforms, including establishing alternative courts for minor offenders to speed cases through the system and for veterans, families and drug users.
Haskell said he also is floating the idea of creating a mental health sentencing alternative in the county, which provides treatment as opposed to incarceration. A similar sentencing alternative is already in place for drug offenders. Haskell said changes are occurring, and he has the knowledge of the office to ensure that continues.
“Anytime you’re on the outside looking in, things can appear to be a lot different than they are when you’re actually hands-on,” Haskell said.
The authors of the blueprint have split their allegiances. Jim McDevitt, a former U.S. assistant attorney, has given to Haskell’s campaign; private practice attorney Philip Wetzel contributed to Beggs. Former Superior Court Judge James Murphy has yet to weigh in on the race and said he wishes to remain impartial.
But he did credit Beggs with providing the “yeoman’s work” on crafting the plans for reform.
“From the outset, Breean was very involved with coming forward with information that was really helpful for our group and putting the blueprint for progress together,” Murphy said.
Relationship with law enforcement
At a recent debate, Haskell said he’s spoken with members of area law enforcement and they’re “fearful” Beggs will be elected.
“I would maintain that my opponent’s relationship with the police is not as good as he has stated today,” Haskell said, after Beggs said he had a good working relationship with members of the law enforcement agencies in town.
As director of the Center for Justice, Beggs helped represent the family of Otto Zehm, who died following a police confrontation in 2006. Beggs said suing police officers makes up a small fraction of his casework over the past decade.
Haskell has earned the backing of many local public safety unions, including the Spokane Police Guild and the Spokane Police Department’s Captain and Lieutenants Association. Representatives of those organizations did not respond to requests for comment on Haskell’s “fearful” remark.
“I know the agencies, and they know me,” Haskell said. “They know my work, and they know my ethic. I’m respected, I believe, in most corners.”
Beggs’ donors include Democratic lawmakers and city elected officials, including City Council President Ben Stuckart and Councilman Jon Snyder, who leads the council’s Public Safety Committee.
Changes to the office
The winner in November will sit at the desk Steve Tucker has occupied for the better part of two decades. Both men have changes in mind but differ in their priorities.
Beggs said he’d have the report in hand and evaluate the office from the ground up. He’d then put a data tracking system in place to grade his office’s performance in key areas, such as recidivism.
“We have to know where the needle is, to be able to know whether we moved it or not,” Beggs said.
In addition to support from law enforcement, Haskell has received contributions from most of the current deputy prosecutors. Tucker has contributed to his campaign, and Haskell is endorsed by Tucker’s predecessor, Jim Sweetser – the last Democrat to hold the office.
Haskell said he’s committed to being more visible in the community than his predecessor.
“We can’t do this without the community,” Haskell said. “You can’t police your way out of problems, and you can’t prosecute your way out of problems.”
Haskell said he also is in favor of setting up a record of the office’s performance, mostly to show the County Commission – which holds the purse strings – what is working and what isn’t.
The prosecutor’s office employs 136 full-time employees and operated on an $11.6 million budget in 2014, according to county records. The county spent $103 million on public safety programs this year (including the prosecutor’s office), about two-thirds of its total spending.
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