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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane County prosecutor candidates make final pitch to voters at Pints and Politics forum

The four Spokane County prosecutor candidates made one of their final pitches to voters Thursday night ahead of the Aug. 2 primary election.

Roughly 75 people attended The Spokesman-Review’s Pints and Politics event at the Montvale Event Center in downtown Spokane.

Stephanie Olsen, a 47-year-old assistant state attorney general; Stefanie Collins, a 55-year-old longtime deputy prosecuting attorney; and Deb Conklin, a 69-year-old pastor with previous prosecuting experience, are running to unseat 68-year-old Larry Haskell, a two-time elected county prosecutor.

The race comes as some have argued there is a perception of bias in the prosecutor’s office due to both the racist statements of Haskell’s wife and racial disparities in the justice system.

Haskell said he wants to continue to aggressively prosecute crimes; Collins said she wants to hold offenders accountable, seek justice for victims and “stop the revolving door of criminal activity; Olsen said she wants to change the prosecutor’s office “at its core” while also strongly prosecuting repeat offenders and attacking violent crime; and Conklin has said she hopes to bring an outside perspective and supports criminal justice reforms.

Northwest Passages / The Spokesman-Review

What types of offenses would you focus on if elected?

Olsen said the prosecutor’s office should fully prosecute major crimes, like drive-by shootings and drug dealings, to provide safety to the community. She said discretion is needed in making prosecuting decisions, and one of her main complaints is that discretion has been removed from the office.

“They are trained professionals and they should have the discretion,” Olsen said. “However, there should be focuses on certain things that are aimed at our community safety.”

Conklin said property crimes can’t be dismissed as trivial, and that it’s extremely important to focus on repeat offenders. She said the office needs to find ways to help those offenders to be more competent at avoiding crimes and living responsible lives.

Haskell said the county and state are drowning in a “sea of increased crime of all types.”

Legislators are sending a message through recent legislative changes that crime is OK, and it’s not, Haskell said. He said state lawmakers have taken tools from police and prosecutors, and he wants to return those tools to better protect the community.

Collins said the prosecutor’s office does not need to prioritize crime, while also saying she wants to target repeat offenders and eliminate backlogged domestic violence cases.

Is Spokane County overcharging defendants?

Spokane County files more felonies than most other counties in the state, including large counties like King and Snohomish.

Conklin said the county is overcharging.

Haskell said the county is not overcharging. He said King County turns down 42% of its cases, which is “abhorrent.” He said Spokane County turns down around 15%.

Collins said she is unsure what overcharging means. She said the office constantly battles a backlog of cases.

Olsen said the county is not overcharging, at least when she was in the prosecutor’s office.

“All crimes that come to us for the most part should be charged as long as the evidence is there,” she said.

Do you think there is bias in the prosecutor’s office? Do you think the mere perception of bias can interfere with the fair administration of justice?

Haskell’s wife, Lesley, has expressed racist comments on social media, but Larry Haskell has said he does not share his wife’s views.

He said his office applies the law evenly and equally. He said statutes don’t talk about race, gender and ethnicity. Instead, they talk about criminal conduct you can prove.

“There is a perception that is being promulgated by certain members of the media and certain members of the community,” Haskell said. “However, numerous public records requests as well as a recent court case has found no disparities in charging in the prosecuting attorney’s office.”

Olsen said many people don’t trust the prosecutor’s office. She said that mistrust affects victims because they don’t want to come forward and offenders don’t believe justice is being done to them.

Conklin said a 2016 study found bias is in the criminal system. She said she can bring tools to the office to address this, like bias training, and explain the unintended consequences of the choices prosecutors make.

Collins said the fact the question was asked is one of the reasons she’s running for the seat.

“You deserve a prosecutor who you can trust,” she said.