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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Former Spokane County criminal justice reform leader Maggie Yates to run against Commissioner Al French

Maggie Yates, who spent the last four years leading Spokane County’s criminal justice reform efforts, is running for county commissioner against longtime incumbent Al French.

“I’m deeply committed to my hometown, and I know our local county government can work better for everyone,” Yates said.

The county commissioners hired Yates in 2018 as Spokane regional law and justice administrator. She implemented a long list of criminal justice reforms, often focused on reducing the county jail population, before resigning in January.

“I left because I could no longer push the work of my office forward,” Yates said.

Yates didn’t get into specifics, but her departure coincided with two notable decisions by the county commissioners. The county had just created a new position overseeing the criminal justice system and recently modified a project that would release some nonviolent offenders from jail while they await trial. The commissioners have since indicated they may revert to the original proposal.

A Spokane native, Yates graduated from Lewis and Clark High School. She majored in cultural anthropology and international studies at Macalester College and has a law degree from UCLA. Before serving as regional law and justice administrator, she worked for the Southern Poverty Law Center, the MacArthur Justice Center and a legal aid office.

The 34-year-old Yates is the third candidate to announce a run for District 5, which covers the West Plains, northwest Spokane and the upper South Hill above 29th Avenue. She joins French, a Republican, and Tara Carter, a District Court clerk running as an independent.

The 2022 county commissioner races should be exciting for local political junkies; they’ll be unlike any Spokane County has seen before.

Today, Spokane County has three commissioners who won office by running in district-specific primary elections and countywide general elections. Those countywide general elections have been good to Republicans because the county as a whole is red. The GOP hasn’t lost a commissioner race in over a decade.

But the election setup has changed, thanks to a law the Washington Legislature passed in 2018. This fall, voters will elect five commissioners, each of whom will represent one district. The countywide votes are over, and while it’s likely Republicans will retain a majority on the commission, they probably won’t manage a clean sweep of all five seats.

The District 5 race could end up being the most interesting.

Democrats on the bipartisan redistricting committee that split the county into five pieces this fall fought to make District 5 a competitive swing district. In recent elections, the district’s voters have favored Republican candidates by 5.5 percentage points.

Yates said she’d have a few areas of focus if voters put her on the county commission.

She’d like to improve transparency, direct some of the county’s $101 million in American Rescue Plan funding toward behavioral health, housing and infrastructure, and ensure good data guides county policy decisions.

Yates said she thinks her firsthand knowledge of the county criminal justice system would be an asset.

The county needs to change its priorities, she said.

“We continue to see high rates of the same people cycling in and out of our jail,” Yates said. “That should be a strong indication that what we’re doing is not working well. It’s not improving safety, and it’s incredibly expensive.”

Spokane County’s 2022 budget includes $161 million for criminal justice and public safety. That makes up more than two-thirds of the county’s general fund and nearly a quarter of its $677 million overall budget.

“I have a really detailed and nuanced understanding of our criminal justice system and opportunities to implement new programs and new investments that can actually increase safety and reduce the reliance on taxpayer dollars,” Yates said.

Traffic issues would be another focus, Yates said.

She noted that growth increasingly stresses the West Plains’ transportation infrastructure and pointed to the Latah Valley as a problem area. Many of the region’s traffic issues could have been avoided with better planning, she said.

Drinking water would be a priority too, Yates said, adding that “clean water and adequate water access in the West Plains has been a challenge for years.”

Airway Heights is advocating for a new, permanent water source after chemicals from firefighting foam used for decades on Fairchild Air Force Base leached into the groundwater, contaminating both private and public wells.

Local governments need to work with state and federal officials and agencies to make sure West Plains residents have plenty of clean drinking water, Yates said.

Spokane County needs new ideas to address new problems, Yates said.

“We have been facing the same challenges for years that could have been avoided with proper foresight and planning,” she said. “We can’t expect different outcomes if we’re going to continue to employ the same approach.”