Arrow-right Camera
Go to e-Edition Sign up for newsletters Customer service
Subscribe now

This column reflects the opinion of the writer. To learn about the differences between a news story and an opinion column, click here.

Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Groups say prosecutor’s policy punishes refugees, legal immigrants

Larry Haskell, the winner of the race for Spokane County prosecutor, claps with the crowd as the results are announced at the Republican gathering at the Davenport Hotel Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2014. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Larry Haskell, the winner of the race for Spokane County prosecutor, claps with the crowd as the results are announced at the Republican gathering at the Davenport Hotel Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2014. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

A group of local leaders has asked Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell to reconsider a provision in some case-resolution agreements that could inadvertently impose life-wrecking consequences on refugees and legal immigrants.

Haskell’s response, in essence: Tough.

The 15 groups petitioning Haskell for the change – including the Spokane County Human Rights Task Force, World Relief, Catholic Charities, the Center for Justice, and the ACLU – have asked Haskell to meet to discuss the matter.

Haskell’s response: Crickets.

The dispute centers on “stipulated orders of continuance” agreements, which are used in mostly misdemeanor cases as a way of easing the burden on the justice system and giving low-level offenders a chance to keep a clean record. The agreements are offered at the discretion of prosecutors, and they allow defendants to enter into a deal: If they meet certain conditions over time, the case is dismissed and no conviction will be entered.

Except, that is, for legal noncitizens, such as refugees. (Undocumented immigrants would not be given such deals; their status would result in their being “placed in removal proceedings,” the groups say.)

For legal immigrants, there is a “clearly disparate impact” from the SOC process, according to a letter the groups sent to Haskell last week. While such agreements don’t result in a conviction under state law, under immigration law they amount to a “conviction in perpetuity,” said Vanessa Mathisen-Nelsen, managing attorney for immigration legal services at World Relief. That might be used against an immigrant in deportation proceedings.

In other words, a process meant to help people avoid minor convictions – and unclog the clogged justice system – could hang a lifetime penalty around the necks of legal immigrants.

The groups’ proposal to change the agreements “is meant primarily to protect those who are legally present within our borders, and to provide them with the same opportunity given to citizens who enter into these agreements: A chance to make things right,” according to the letter.

Haskell’s response, in essence: Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.

“It is neither the duty of the law nor the prosecutor to take personal steps to ameliorate the consequences for committing crimes in our community,” Haskell wrote in a statement responding to a request for an interview. “If a criminal defendant has concerns about consequences of unlawful conduct, I strongly encourage law-abiding behavior.”

Haskell’s office changed the language in its SOCs in 2015, adding a requirement that defendants essentially admit everything in the police report about their case is accurate. Under immigration law, such a stipulation could later lead to a finding in immigration court that a defendant had been penalized – even in a case where there was never any ultimate judgment of guilt or innocence rendered.

Other cities and counties use language that does not require such a stipulation; it does not mean that if defendants do not meet the terms of the SOC, the police report can’t be admitted to court later. Making the change doesn’t let bad actors off the hook, in other words.

“If that were the case, these other jurisdictions like the city of Spokane and King County and other places would not be” using the “immigrant-safe” language, said Rick Eichstaedt, executive director of the Center for Justice.

Beyond being “tough” – in a Trumpian sense – on immigrants, it’s hard to understand the advantage Haskell sees in refusing to change the agreements. While he argues that his critics have the law wrong, in neither his letter to them nor a written response to media inquiries does he make a case for any advantage to doing it his way – just his reasons for refusing to change.

The issue was first raised with Haskell in a letter from the county Human Rights Task Force last October, and Haskell answered in November. A second letter – signed by representatives of 15 community groups – was sent to Haskell on Feb. 13.

In the letter, the groups argue he has the law wrong and ask for a meeting.

“We don’t view this as an unreasonable request – particularly to sit down and meet,” Eichstaedt said. “We haven’t heard back.”

More from this author