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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Crime/Public Safety

Prosecutor turned pastor hopes to return to courtroom; ‘Nonpartisan’ Conklin is first non-Republican to file for Spokane County prosecutor

UPDATED: Mon., April 25, 2022

Conklin  (Courtesy of Debra Conklin)
Conklin (Courtesy of Debra Conklin)

Debra Conklin hasn’t practiced law in 35 years, but the Spokane pastor is now the fourth candidate and only non-Republican to announce her intention to run for Spokane County prosecutor.

Conklin, who said she is running as “nonpartisan,” filed Monday to run for the office. She joins incumbent Larry Haskell, longtime Spokane County deputy prosecutor Stefanie Collins and longtime attorney Stephanie Olsen in the primary.

“That’s a conscious choice and a point that I want to raise in the campaign – that justice is not partisan,” the 69-year-old Spokane resident said. “It’s not Republican, it’s not Democrat. Justice is for all of us and I believe that the prosecutor’s office should be nonpartisan.”

Conklin is a pastor at Liberty Park and St. Paul’s United Methodist churches in Spokane.

She has served as a United Methodist Church pastor the past 25 years in Rosalia, Ocean Shores, Davenport, Deer Park and now Spokane.

Conklin grew up on a farm near the small town of Windsor, New York, and eventually traveled west, earning her law degree from the University of Washington in 1981.

Conklin, who has lived in Spokane the last 15 years, said she worked as a deputy prosecutor in Clallam County on the West Side of the state from 1983 to 1987, serving as senior criminal deputy prosecutor and handling sexual assault cases the final three years.

At one point during that period, she said she worked seven felony jury trials – while pregnant and on crutches because of a broken ankle – in about seven weeks. All were guilty verdicts except one, Conklin said.

She said she then took a couple years off from work, partly to raise her baby, after her four-year stint in Clallam County.

Conklin eventually turned to ministry, where she said she continued to do the two most important things she did as a prosecutor. In both professions, she said she helped victims through traumatic experiences and spoke to people – jurors and church attendees – about the right thing to do.

“I probably spend more time in front of my congregation than most deputy prosecutors do in front of a jury,” Conklin said.

She said she has considered running for county prosecutor since Haskell ran unopposed, which she called “shocking,” in 2018.

Conklin said she spent a good part of the last four years working to renew her law license, which she finally did in December.

“The most important role of the prosecuting attorney is to make the community as safe as we can make it and to implement justice while we’re doing it,” Conklin said. “And in Spokane County, we’re not getting that, and that’s been clear for quite a while. We want a community that both is safe and feels safe.”

She said policies and procedures of the prosecutor’s office that go back before Haskell took office almost eight years ago don’t contribute to a safe community.

Conklin said locking people up before trial and after sentencing seems to be the primary tool Haskell uses, noting that incarcerating defendants before they are convicted can cause them to lose their job and home. That suffering trickles down to their family and their community because employers experience high turnover rates and landlords lose tenants, she said.

Conklin said one alternative, which she claimed is much cheaper than incarceration, is implementing electronic monitoring such as ankle bracelets. The monitoring allows the justice system to track defendants and ensure they make court appearances.

Conklin also questioned bail setting practices, saying bail should not be used to keep someone in jail.

She said the American Bar Association makes it clear that defendants should be released on their own recognizance prior to trial unless they are a flight risk or a danger to the community, victims, witnesses or themselves.

“If they’re not safe to be released, then they shouldn’t be released,” Conklin said.

She advocated for more resources for inmates who are released from jail and prison.

“The goal of sentencing should be to ask what sentence will contribute to a safer community for all of us?” Conklin said. “What sentence will be most likely to have this person be a productive member of society when they get out?”

According to the Washington state Public Disclosure Commission, Conklin had not raised any money for her campaign as of Friday. Meanwhile, Haskell has raised $21,120.30, Olsen has raised $13,585.62 and Collins has garnered $6,629.99.

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