Jul. 10—When Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell ran for re-election the first time, he drew no challengers.
But after his wife’s racist rants on social media were reported earlier this year, three of them jumped into the race to oppose Haskell’s bid for a third term.
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, filed to unseat 68-year-old Haskell.
Olsen and Collins, both Republicans, hope to bring fresh ideas, more transparency and better morale to the prosecutor’s office. Conklin, running nonpartisan, hopes an outside perspective and support of criminal justice reforms will win her the seat.
In what Haskell said would be his final term, he hopes to fight the “lawlessness is OK” message he sees the Washington Legislature sending through recent police reforms and sentencing regulations.
Public faith in the office
Earlier this year, after an Inlander article exposed the racist comments by Haskell’s wife, Lesley, Haskell apologized before defending the integrity of his office.
Haskell said he does not share his wife’s views and that he doesn’t prosecute based on race. Legal experts in a Seattle Times article suggested the comments could call the fairness of his office into question, a theory that was tested unsuccessfully by a local attorney in a recent resentencing case.
Among many offensive posts, Lesley Haskell used a profanity to describe MSNBC host Joy Reid, who is Black, and described herself as a “proud white nationalist.”
The most vehement criticism, Larry Haskell said, is from people who never liked him. He and his office do not charges crimes based on race, he said.
“In our office, we prosecute for the reasons that the statue sets and only those reasons,” Haskell said.
Haskell argued that disparities leading to more people of color being prosecuted start upstream from his office. He added that his office just prosecutes the cases that are referred by police and the sheriff’s office. The criminal justice system should be race-free, he added.
“The right answer will never be a racist answer, I guarantee you that. Not only do I not condone anything racist, either way,” Haskell said, “I do not believe there’s good racism and bad racism. Racism is always bad.”
Haskell said he doesn’t believe the scandal has broadly hurt the reputation of the prosecutor’s office, and that only some people care what his wife says online.
All of Haskell’s opponents believe the scandal has significantly damaged the public perception of the prosecutor’s office.
Simply having a new head of the office would in large part restore public faith, Conklin said.
A lack of trust in the prosecutor’s office has not only hurt morale, but could result in criminals going free, and with people of color less likely to trust prosecutors to be fair, Olsen said.
“The problem with that is, not only do you have offenders who don’t trust you, but you have victims that don’t trust you and (now) you have communities that don’t trust,” Olsen said.
Collins acknowledges Lesley Haskell’s right to voice her opinions, “but when you do so, there are going to be consequences,” Collins said.
“And the consequence has been significant,” she added.
Haskell has been less transparent or willing to go to community meetings since the scandal, Collins said.
An increase in crime
A “high increase in crime that stems partially from a lack of leadership” in the prosecutor’s office, Olsen said, is part of why she decided to run against her former boss.
She pointed to a lack of collaboration between the prosecutor’s office and law enforcement as leading to prosecution being declined on numerous crimes. She said she would prosecute violent crimes to the fullest extent, and described her philosophy as “holding people accountable but allowing for opportunity for change.”
Haskell also is concerned about an increase in crime, but blames the problem on the state Supreme Court overturning Washington’s drug possession law and the Legislature reducing penalties for certain crimes.
He said his focus is on victims and accountability for offenders, and he believes that offenders need to serve longer prison terms to reap the full benefits of Department of Corrections programming like mental health, addiction treatment and higher education. Haskell also supports a longer transitional phase for offenders to work their way out of full custody and toward a halfway house.
Collins said she hopes to target repeat offenders by working with law enforcement. She’s also concerned about a backlog of domestic violence cases.
“We haven’t even looked at the reports to decide whether we’re going to file the charges, which means we are betraying the most vulnerable in our society,” Collins said.
She plans to implement “accountability plans” as part of plea agreements that would require offenders to write about what they did, how the plea is justice for the victim and how they’re going to work toward getting out of the criminal justice system, she said.
“We are never going to stop churning people through the system until there’s some self-reflection,” Collins said.
Unlike the other candidates, Conklin doesn’t believe the average citizen in Spokane County thinks there’s an increase in crime unless they’ve been told that, she said.
“I don’t think people are actually experiencing that in their day-to-day lives,” Conklin said.
A large percentage of crime is committed by repeat offenders, Conklin said. While she hopes to target repeat offenders, Conklin doesn’t think incarceration will fix the root issue of why they continue to commit crimes.
“Simply locking them up isn’t solving the problem,” Conklin said.
She hopes to target those people while also advocating for better rehabilitation services in prison and transitional services once people are released.
“The solution is not to lock people up longer,” Conklin said. “The solution is to have programs that help people do a better job at living when they get out.”
After seeing Haskell run unopposed in 2018, Conklin reactivated her bar license. While she hasn’t practiced law in decades, Conklin said she was good at what she did. Once, she tried seven cases in five weeks while five months pregnant and on crutches, only losing one case, she said.
If elected, she hopes to help push through criminal justice reforms like expanding therapeutic courts and alternatives to pretrial incarceration such as the county’s proposed supported release program, Conklin said.
“This year, we have a unique opportunity to really bring change to a system that’s badly broken,” Conklin said. “The prosecutor’s office is the sticking point for virtually every reform.”
Beyond reforms, Conklin plans to charge only when she can prove a crime beyond a reasonable doubt, a higher standard than probable cause.
“If you can’t prove it beyond a reasonable doubt when you’re filing the charges, you don’t file them,” Conklin said.
The higher standard can be used to encourage law enforcement to do more thorough work to make sure their cases get prosecuted, she said.
A number of experienced deputy prosecutors have left Haskell’s office in recent months and hiring new prosecutors has been a challenge, he acknowledges.
“I want to hire, train and retain people that are dedicated first of all to public service,” Haskell said. “I want to honor the documents, and for me, it’s the U.S. Constitution, the state constitution and then the state statutory scheme.”
Statewide, there has been a drop in applications for open prosecuting positions, Haskell said. He added that starting salaries are low for new attorneys, but there are substantial raises as attorneys move up in the office. Pay for support staff continues to be low, and Haskell said he would like to see it increase.
Doing the right thing and following the law are two things Haskell said he stresses to his attorneys when they have issues in a case.
“The right answer is the one that’s most consistent with the law,” he said.
While there’s always room for improvement, Haskell said he tries to find what motivates individual employees to encourage them. He said he also makes it clear if someone is uncomfortable with a task that they should let him know.
Haskell’s opponents who previously worked for him both said his leadership has led to ongoing issues in the office.
Olsen, who worked for Haskell for four years, said his militant style and tendency to micromanage were a problem.
“There is a huge lack of leadership and a very toxic environment in that office,” Olsen said. “I would reinforce quality work over quantity of work.”
She hopes to institute more training for incoming deputy prosecutors and for those moving into leadership roles.
She also hopes to provide collaborative training between the prosecutor’s office and law enforcement to help officers write reports and gather information in a way that helps prosecution, Olsen said.
The majority of the supervisors under Haskell have been male, Olsen and Collins said. Collins alleges she was passed over for a role leading the domestic violence unit because Haskell knew of her intentions to run against him.
Haskell denied Collins’ claim. Collins wasn’t a good fit for the role, Haskell said. Haskell also said he wasn’t aware she was planning to run against him early this year, when the role was vacant.
Having run the unit before and being a well-respected leader in the department, Collins said she was the obvious choice for the role. In part due to that alleged retaliation, Collins has asked her co-workers in the office to not engage with her campaign to protect themselves, she said.
“The prosecutor’s office needs to have a strong, respected and engaged leader,” Collins said.
She plans to recognize the existing talent in the office and develop people’s strengths, Collins said. She also hopes to build better working relationships with law enforcement in outlying communities like Liberty Lake, Deer Park, Cheney and Spangle, in hopes of making prosecution easier for all parties involved.
Conklin also believes the office needs new leadership, but that it should come from someone outside of the office, who hasn’t spent years steeped in the current overcharging and oversentencing culture, she said.
“I would bring a different culture to how we do the work,” Conklin said.
If any of the women running against Haskell were to be elected, they would be the first woman elected to the position.
Haskell and his office routinely ignore questions from the press and rarely release public statements, something Collins said has added to the appearance of a lack of transparency in the office.
With the extremely vocal Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich retiring this year, Collins said she hopes to step into the role of helping to educate the public on the criminal justice system. If elected, Collins said she plans to be more open with the community and support other branches of the criminal justice system in their efforts to do the same.
Haskell said his office is limited on what it can comment on regarding ongoing cases, but the office does engage with the public and answer press questions when it can. He would like a public relations position in the department, he added.
Current press calls are directed to Larry Steinmetz, the chief criminal deputy, but he rarely returns calls.
“I know that we can do better,” Haskell said.
Conklin also said she plans to be more transparent and help educate the community on the criminal justice system.
Olsen said she also hopes to hire a public information officer for the office to respond to press inquiries.
“When you don’t talk to the press, it makes you look like you’re doing something bad,” Olsen said. “We represent the community. We should be also telling the community what’s going on.”