Which has been worse for people of color in Spokane County, Lesley Haskell's words, or Larry Haskell's actions?
Late Thursday, Daniel Walters published a lengthy piece in the Inlander outlining damning comments made by Lesley Haskell – the wife of Spokane County’s elected Prosecutor, Larry Haskell. The outcry has been swift and fierce and surprisingly far reaching, and that’s entirely appropriate.
Since his election in 2014, Larry has been working — more quietly than Lesley, but steadily — within the scope of his considerable power to maintain the racial status quo that Lesley is so vocally worried white people are losing.
We’ll get to the data supporting this in a moment, but the clearest sign that Lesley and Larry are on the same page is that she thinks they are.
So let’s start with her words.
The screenshots from Gab highlighted in Walters’ reporting show Lesley “proudly posing” with Proud Boys, including the now-jailed Tiny Toese; proclaiming herself a white nationalist; telling Black folks to consider the vaccine doses she’s not using her contribution to reparations; begging white people to have more babies, and calling MSNBC pundit Joy Reid “the true definition of the word ‘n_____’.”
The comments were made over the course of 2021 on Facebook and Gab — the Twitter alternative and favorite platform of the Alt-Right. The screen grabs originally surfaced earlier in the week on the right-wing watchdog blog meetmattshea.com, and Walters subsequently vetted them and contacted various officials and the Haskells for comment. No one bothered to deny they were Lesley’s own words.
The Haskells have been in this situation before. In 2015, less than a year after he was elected prosecutor, the Inlander’s Deanna Pan documented Lesley Haskell had previously posted “I do not trust Muzlims” and had made disparaging remarks about Spokane’s branch of the NAACP. (It’s unclear if her misspelling of Muslim was intentional.)
A subsequent Spokesman article by Rachel Alexander was able to trace the family’s Comcast IP address to a number of user names in the newspaper’s commenting system, including one that called for the “annihilation” of a local Black family.
In 2015, Alexander quoted Haskell apologizing for the “angst” his wife’s words had caused. He did not apologize yesterday, instead backing her first amendment right to say whatever she wants.
Local conservative leaders were quick to say Haskell is not responsible for the views of his wife, with Sheriff Knezovich telling Walters:
"I do know that the prosecutor does not agree with his wife’s posting. They are two separate people. He is one of the most level-headed and very law-and-order conscious individuals."
Back in 2015, Pan asked Haskell if he would apply the law differently to Muslims or other people of color. He replied, “As to all persons and groups, everyone is entitled to the equal protection of the laws. They will not be discriminated against. Period."
But Haskell has been in office for 7 years now, and the data is clear: everyone is not being equally protected in Spokane County.
As Prosecutor, Larry Haskell is arguably the most powerful person in our local criminal legal system. The lawyers in his office decide which defendants to charge, what charges and how many to charge each defendant with, and how strenuously to push for harsh sentences or pleas.
In 2019, four years into Haskell’s tenure as prosecutor, the county published a $1.9 million-dollar, MacArthur-funded analysis conducted by the JFA Institute to analyze inmate populations at both the downtown jail and Geiger Correctional. According to Josh Kelety, reporting in the Inlander, MacArthur’s intent was to help “implement criminal justice reform projects and reduce overcrowding” through a variety of possible evidence-based practices, including greatly expanding jail diversion. County leaders wanted to build a bigger jail.
The problem is that JFA’s report found the jail was only full because of how harshly prosecutors were treating people charged with misdemeanors and non-violent felonies. Those low level crimes, combined with temporary holds — such as to transfer inmates from local to federal custody — made up 74% of the jail system’s average daily population of 930 people. “Serious violent” felonies only accounted for 8 percent, and violent crimes of any severity only accounted for a total of 26%.
Wendy Ware, a Vice President at JFA, told Kelety the numbers were way out of whack with other jurisdictions:
“It’s both the length of stay for those crimes and just the fact that they are a sizable part of the confined population," she says. "We’ll see large numbers of [inmates charged with] drug possession flow through jails in other jurisdictions for short time frames. But to have it be a sizable portion of people sitting in the jail on a daily basis is an outlier."
The JFA report also found staggering racial disparities: Native Americans were 6.5 times more likely and Blacks were 13 times more likely to be incarcerated than whites.
Black inmates were locked up longer too — an average of 27 days, versus 15 for the average white offender. Haskell’s office was throwing the book at everyone within its criminal jurisdiction, and especially people of color.
And while the JFA was intended as a springboard to reform, the problem appears to have gotten worse: last month, the average incarceration time had grown by over 50% for Black inmates — to 45 days — and up to 19 days for whites.
Haskell has also been working in local policy circles to undermine attempts at racial equity reform. In January 2020 and again that July, Haskell tried to remove racial equity language from criminal justice goals proposed by a reform task force composed of community members, elected officials and stakeholders. Haskell was joined in perseveration by County Commissioners Kerns and French, all white men. The Spokesman quoted lawyer and Native Project COO Maureen Rosette, saying, “These caucasian men are changing the whole flavor of what (the task force) came up with,” she said. “Maybe it’s them that need to be changed, not the words.”
Last year, Haskell lead an effort to drastically scale the Spokane Regional Law and Justice Council all the way back to the bare minimum required by state statute. The council had become a big table for a diverse group of stakeholders to meet with power. Haskell didn’t fully get his way, but reform advocates still believe even the compromise board silences minority communities.
In September 2020, former drug and mental health court coordinator Sandra Altshuler wrote a short letter to the editor in the Spokesman claiming that,
When Larry assumed office, referrals to therapeutic courts dropped significantly, and, more insidiously, virtually no POCs were referred. When inquiries were made about this, his office refused to send needed information about their referrals while claiming “we don’t turn anyone down.” Many attorneys in Larry’s office countered that claim by noting that they and their colleagues would receive reprimands for submitting referrals to our courts.
What change did come to the county’s criminal legal policies came at the pointy end of covid.
In March 2020, as in most jurisdictions, Spokane released roughly 40% of the people in jail to try and facilitate social distancing and stop the spread. While numbers have climbed a bit, the overall population has stayed at about 75% of its old average.
But there’s a problem: month-by-month counts of white inmates have stayed well below historic levels, while Black inmates have returned to and, in some months, exceeded pre-covid averages.
Using the most recent jail numbers, from December, and data from the recent census – a process that approximates but isn’t exactly the same as the 2019 report (I don’t have the same data access JFA did) – Black people still appear to be incarcerated at 10 times the rate of white people, with Indigenous people at 5 times the rate.
It’s a small statistical difference. Hard to call that an improvement.
Haskell and his prosecutors have broad discretion to push for huge bail amounts, and data indicates they’re using the full weight of their authority on un-convicted inmates, especially people of color.
Around 70% of the jail population is pre-trial, meaning they are in jail because they haven’t been able to post bail, not because they’ve been convicted. This is in line with state and national averages. For Black people locked up, the pre-trial number is 78%.
The county tracks bail assessments in tranches from $1-$1,000; $1,001-$5,000; $5001-$10,000; and above $10,000.
Since January 2019, the beginning of the dashboard data, just under 33% of white people have been ordered to pay bail of over $10,000. For Black defendants, that number jumps to 45%.
It does appear that the percentage of Black inmates with over $10,000 in bail dipped slightly after the report, but the numbers rebounded in 2021.
It’s no surprise, then, that people of color stay in jail longer, too. In December 2021, the average stay for a white defendant was 19.4 days. The average Native American and Hispanic stay was 27 and 33 days respectively.
The average Black inmate spent over 45 days incarcerated, more than 2.3 times longer than white inmates.
And while the racial disparities exacerbate the problem, the 19-day jail stay for white people is more than enough time to lose your job and whatever remaining stability you might have. Your housing. Perhaps your children. Our Land of the Free series from 2020 had plenty of heartbreaking stories.
Across racial and other differences, there was a uniting factor: If you’re poor, in this system, you’re suffering. In 2019 a 72-year-old man was held in jail for 33 months, with various hearings delayed over 20 times, before he finally caved and took a deal.
Lesley is becoming a household name. Why isn’t Larry already one?
It’s one of the great mysteries of local politics in Washington: the invisible prosecutor.
Despite the tremendous power of the role, prosecutors statewide slip with astonishing ease into a sort of bureaucratic anonymity – even when their spouses are staging photo ops with Proud Boys.
In a 2021 poll by Fuse Washington, 36% of Spokane County residents polled had only a neutral opinion of Haskell and a staggering 38% said they had never even heard of him.
It’s hard to believe those numbers, given that 60% of voters had voted for him in 2014 and Lesley started getting in trouble for her posts in 2015. These weren’t liberal elites. In the same poll, Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich came away with a +23 favorability rating.
This tendency of prosecutors to blend is widespread. The office itself isn’t even particularly coveted, and statewide, the elections often aren’t even contested. Nearly 75% of prosecutors in Washington State ran unopposed in 2018.
Larry Haskell was one of them.
Words have the power to traumatize and they have the power to incite violence. And wherever those words lead, psychological trauma is a harm every bit as real as physical violence.
It’s important also, though, to think about relative power.
When all is said and done, Lesley is an angry lady on the Twitter for racists. Larry is one of the most powerful people in Spokane County. And in his specific domain — with the capacity to take away people’s very freedom with physical force and by force of law — there’s no one with more power.
People have spent the last 24 hours trying to indict Larry by putting Lesley’s words in his mouth. And his defenders have spent that time using his more mild manner as a shield against those attacks.
All of that is a distraction.
It doesn’t matter whether Larry is as nasty as Lesley. Whether he would use the N-word on the Internet is immaterial.
His actions are clear. The data is conclusive: His office is using that tremendous power to quietly perpetuate the systems of oppression that Lesley loudly advocates.
We can’t kick Lesley off of Gab. We can vote Larry out of office.