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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: In the words of the prosecutor’s wife, reason for concern about justice

Prosecutor Larry Haskell on election night 2014.  (Spokesman-Review)
Prosecutor Larry Haskell on election night 2014. (Spokesman-Review)

If you look at the Spokane County Jail as an important checkpoint in our system of justice, you see a distinct bias.

We jail Black and Native American people at a much higher rate than white people – 13 times higher for Black people and 6.5 times higher for Native Americans, according to a 2017 analysis by the JFA Institute.

On average, people of color are given higher bail amounts, booked into jail upon charging more frequently and sentenced to jail more often than white people, according to an analysis of 2016 data by the W. Heywood Burns Institute.

Black and Native American inmates are held significantly longer, on average, than whites, despite having on average the same number of charges, or fewer, when they’re booked. From May 2018 to April 2019, the average length of jail stay for a Black person was 28 days, almost twice that of white inmate.

You find similar racial disparities throughout the system – from police stops to booking decisions to sentences. When officials shrank the jail population because of COVID-19 concerns, they did so mostly by reducing the white population. From January 2019 to February 2020, the white population at the jail dropped 33% (from 612 to 408) and the Black population dropped 12% (from 103 to 91.)

There’s a lot involved in these disparities, and they reflect deep historical, social and economic forces more than overt, individual racial animus. But key local officials have worked to uphold these systems and hamper reform efforts – and none has been more diligent or influential in this regard than Prosecutor Larry Haskell.

Since his election in 2014, Haskell has charged felonies more aggressively than other prosecutors in the state – at one point, he was filing felonies at twice the rate of other large counties in Washington. This has helped keep the jail very full of nonviolent offenders – just 8% of the jail population was made up of serious violent offenders, the JFA Institute found.

Haskell claims he has no discretion in charging decisions, which is absurd.

As an update of the county’s Blueprints for Reform project put it in 2020, “Several agencies reported to us that the number of felony filings has strained the system. … Prosecutor Haskell has reported to us that he has no choice but to file felony cases when the probable cause is presented. We disagree.”

He has worked to shrink the size of the Spokane Law and Justice Council, which used to be a larger, more diverse body of stakeholders and citizens that often made proposals Haskell didn’t like. Even in seemingly small, symbolic ways, he has resisted efforts to address racial inequities – he mounted a full-court press to prevent the county from adopting a nonbinding goal of racial equity, for example.

So how relevant is it to learn that his wife, who has long been a vulgar, race-baiting social media presence, has been posting blatantly racist material online? And what’s the connection between Lesley Haskell’s individual, loud-and-proud racism and the quiet, structural racism propped up by Larry Haskell?

These are rhetorical questions, but serious ones. And they are particularly serious as the county arrives at a low point in the decadelong push to examine and improve our local justice system. The resignation of Maggie Yates, who led the county’s efforts to reduce the jail population and address racial inequalities against a constant headwind of opposition, is an unfortunate symbol in this regard.

But let’s back up a step: Last week, Daniel Walters of the Inlander published a story detailing some of Lesley Haskell’s most disturbing social media posts on Gab, a social media site that has become a haven for racists, and other platforms. Walters’ story expanded upon some of the material posted at a local website, Meet Matt Shea.

Lesley Haskell’s social media posts have come up publically before – notably during a flurry of media coverage in 2015 focused on her anti-Muslim comments. Even by her own trashy standards, though, she seems to have gotten worse.

Some lowlights: She used the N-word to describe MSNBC’s Joy Reid. She wrote “Love you, Nick!” in response to a post by gutter bigot Nick Fuentes, the former podcasting partner of our own James Allsup. She described herself repeatedly as a white nationalist and posted lots of white victimhood nonsense, like “Whites are the ones who are under attack in this country.”

She has celebrated Jan. 6, attacked George Floyd, posted a selfie with Proud Boys, railed about the “plandemic” and the “GloboHomo” efforts to indoctrinate kids. She doesn’t shy away from mentioning her husband, calling him “the last line of conservative armor the County has.”

There is much more, and I encourage you to read Walters’ whole story. (There’s also a longer breakdown of some of the jail disparity data by Luke Baumgarten at Range.)

To all of this, Larry Haskell, who will be running for re-election this year, has essentially shrugged, referring to his wife as a “strong-willed person who will speak her mind.”

“In all respects, my wife’s social media postings have no influence or bearing on how I run this office and I strongly believe that no one could establish otherwise,” he said in a statement. “In that regard, I seldom view, much less post, on social media platforms. Succinctly stated by the United States Supreme Court, ‘guilt by association’ is one of the most odious institutions in history.”

Interesting what a person chooses to call odious in such a moment. It’s certainly true that Larry Haskell – to whatever degree he agrees with his wife – has been put in a difficult situation by her raving. His obligation to the public would seem to demand a clearer, more forceful repudiation of her statements, something which I think every married one of us can agree would be extraordinarily difficult.

And yet: If you learned your spouse was throwing around the N-word on Gab, would you be thinking what a strong-willed person they were? Would you think it was “guilt by association” for someone to notice?

And how can the community believe that there is no relationship – none! – between what Lesley Haskell says and Larry Haskell does?

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