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County prosecutor pushes back on recommendation that ‘racial equity’ guide local justice system

UPDATED: Tue., July 28, 2020

Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell speaks in court on July 18, 2019.  (JESSE TINSLEY)
Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell speaks in court on July 18, 2019. (JESSE TINSLEY)

Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell has recommended county commissioners remove the phrase “racial equity” from a set of criminal justice goals they may adopt, over concerns the word “equity” could be used to “adjust the scales” of justice, he said Tuesday.

The racial equity goal is one of several guiding principles drawn up by a task force of community members, activists, elected officials and stakeholders in the criminal justice system that was created to put forward justice reforms. Those guiding principles also include a commitment to humane treatment of people in the criminal justice system and to data-driven reform.

Haskell was one of two people to object to the equity guiding principle when it was moved forward in January, arguing that people’s outcomes in the criminal justice system are based on their personal choices.

Haskell’s objections were overruled when the issue was discussed at the task force, but he raised them again when commissioners discussed adopting them last week.

Fellow task force members and leaders of color in Spokane said they were disturbed and alarmed by Haskell’s repeated attempts to water down a commitment to racial justice and equity, and said they were also concerned that county commissioners were open to his alternative proposal.

That proposal reads as follows: “Spokane County is committed to a consistent principled and equal application of the law for all persons, regardless of their race, gender, religious affiliation, orientation or social status.”

The original wording the task force drafted reads, “We are committed to pursuing a criminal justice system that ensures racial equity and equity across all identities.”

Kurtis Robinson, chair of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, said elected county leaders had repeatedly been shown data laying out inequalities in the criminal justice system and that alterations made outside of groups that include people of color is proof they are not committed to change.

“They’ve received information again and again and again,” Robinson said. “What this looks like to me is that they’re trying to appeal to their own internal dynamics that doesn’t really want the system to change all that much, if at all, and that they’re trying to appeal to the dog-whistle dynamics that are in our politics today.”

Haskell said in an interview Tuesday that his proposal focuses on all people being held to the same standard under the law. He said adopting a value like equity would be pushing for an outcome that could create constitutional issues.

“To give a certain person an outcome, it is entirely likely that you’ll have to adjust the scale for some people that you wouldn’t for others. Otherwise, how do you achieve the same outcome?” he said. “I think that’s dangerous (and) I don’t think that is what the constitutional convention is and you get into an area where, like I said, how long do you thumb (the scales of justice), how often, how long you hold it?”

Commissioners Josh Kerns and Al French also questioned the wording of the original proposal, while Commissioner Mary Kuney said she was open to accepting the task force’s proposal as written.

Members of the task force and others leaders of color in the community argued that the only people who have ever received equal justice under law are white people, and that a principle like Haskell’s does not acknowledge the sometimes insurmountable disadvantage people of color carry with them when they enter the criminal justice system.

“If you’re using the finger on the scale, it’s already been applied in a negative way to people of color,” said task force member Curtis Hampton.

Hampton said commissioners and the prosecutor shouldn’t be defining racial equity or making decisions about whether it should be included, without people of color in the room.

Others, such as Maureen Rosette, chief operating officer of the Native Project and an attorney who has represented Native American families who lost custody of their children, said Haskell’s principle and the way it was discussed shows a commitment to the status quo and a lack of people of color at the table.

“As an attorney, words have meaning,” she said. “Mr. Haskell wants to maintain the status quo with his watered-down statement, while the task force chose the term ‘equity’ for a reason.”

Rosette said that, over the last couple of months, all types of racial disparities have intensified, with Native American communities experiencing a much higher death rate from coronavirus. She said seeing even small efforts to address racial disparity, such as a commitment to equity, derailed is painful.

“These caucasian men are changing the whole flavor of what (the task force) came up with,” she said. “Maybe it’s them that need to be changed, not the words.”

During the last commissioners’ meeting where the proposals were discussed, Kerns argued that Haskell’s wording accounted more for people’s circumstances than did the task force’s wording, while French suggested the wording should be “equality for all” and that judges could decide what is equitable.

“The term ‘racial equity,’ the first thing that comes to mind is reparations,” French said during the meeting, “I go back to the failed attempts of the past, whether affirmative action or other measures to address equity. It always resulted in some kind of an imbalance.”

In an interview, French said bringing up reparations was more of a question and that he does not have a “hard and fast” definition for what equity means or what it looks like in practice. He said he was working to educate himself and acknowledged that many people of color have not received equal treatment under law and that disparities still exist.

“While the Constitution talks about how all people are created equal, how it was implemented was wanting,” he said.

French said he preferred the word “equality” over “equity” because everyone understands what equality means, arguing there is disagreement over the definition of equity. He also noted that the task force is a body that makes recommendations, and that the decision about what version of the principles are adopted is up to him and his fellow commissioners.

In her training and coaching as a racial equity educator and leadership coach for JustLead Washington, Ada Shen-Jaffe said she starts to define equity by considering the history communities have survived.

“Equity recognizes that people do not start from the same place,” she said. “Some are carrying huge historical burdens and also the traumatic aftereffects of a multigenerational disadvantage and dehumanization.”

She said equity also recognizes that people often don’t have the same resources, so if they are given equal treatment, they still won’t make it to the same place.

“Equity is almost a precondition to equality,” she said.

Breean Beggs, a civil rights attorney and Spokane City Council president, said equity isn’t necessarily contrary to the U.S. Constitution and that courts, including the Washington State Supreme Court, have publicly acknowledged their failures to uphold racial justice and committed to pursuing it.

He said various forms of equity, such as requiring access for people with disabilities or providing translators in the courts, have been allowed. Another example he shared was a county contracting with the Boys and Girls Club to contact and assist juvenile defendants of color to make sure they make it to court safely.

“It’s the same principles about applying that in the criminal justice system and saying (how is this) person is being obstructed or weighed down by racial bias in our system, how do we get them to participate?” he said.

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