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Oct 30, 2022 5 min read

Robinson: 'A fish rots from the head down'

Robinson: 'A fish rots from the head down'

Despite the spotlight cast by years of reports and working groups, racial disproportionalities in jailing and prosecution in Spokane County are as bad as ever. It’s clear leadership doesn’t want change, so it’s time for a change of leadership.

By Kurtis Robinson

Editor’s note: We don’t publish many opinion pieces here at RANGE, and we don’t intend to start, but this isn’t an ordinary column. Kurtis Robinson is a leader in and servant of the community who has spent the better part of a decade working and speaking out on behalf of systemically marginalized people and on behalf of justice in general. His words are informed by more on-the-ground work than almost anyone else in the area. Robinson has served on just about every permanent board and ad hoc committee — city, county and state — dedicated to the task of reforming our criminal legal system. He has thought deeply about the needed change and done the work to try to reform the system from within. He is not a person who goes around calling for heads to roll. When he speaks, we’ve learned to consider his words carefully.

Robinson had a frequent column in the Black Lens which, since 2015, has been a platform not just for the Black community to speak to itself, but a bullhorn to carry those community voices to anyone else who would listen. Following the tragic death of Sandy Williams, Spokane is — for now — without the Black Lens and without a consistent place for analyses like Robinson’s. Only Williams could have built the Black Lens, and a single piece like this could never replicate its impact. But we feel it’s appropriate, whenever we can, to hold a small amount of space for the principles Williams and her newspaper held dear, until it resumes publishing. — Luke

We have to stop denying the connections and embrace the realities.

We are not making progress on ending racism and racial disproportion in our criminal legal system in Spokane County. We continue to have incredibly harmful, damaging, oppressive and dehumanizing practices running rampant through both our legal and political system.

Disproportionate arrest rates, bail amounts and sentence terms for people of color are just as bad as they were in 2019, when the Spokane-County-funded JFA report detailed not just that indigenous and Black people were 6.5 and 13 times more likely to be locked up than white people, respectively, but they also tend to stay in jail longer. Three years later, those statistics still hold.

Several individuals in critical positions of power are responsible for maintaining this status quo of oppression and harm, especially to our communities of color. Among them, no individual has more power to maintain — or dismantle — the rate at which we push our fellow Spokanites through these oppressive systems than Prosecutor Larry Haskell.

Haskell (and many others who have been protecting the status quo) has perpetuated the oppression and radical damage to marginalized communities during his tenure, all the while denying that is his intent.

Haskell's standard operating procedures demonstrate that racial disproportionalities under his tough-on-crime policies have continued, yet right alongside that has also been his continued denial of implementing or reinforcing racist practices.

The reality, though, is that he has actively opposed reforms that would make the system more just and equitable.

Kurtis Robinson (Photo courtesy of Robinson)

He even opposed adding the word “equity” to missional language for the Spokane Regional Law and Justice Council, a council he then worked to downsize and undermine. I served with Haskell on the Justice Task Force for Spokane County and witnessed him continually deny the realities of racial disproportionality, which I spoke out about at the time. That’s before even talking about his office charging more drug cases than any other prosecutor’s office in Washington State and his historic resistance to alternatives to sentencing such as coordinated reentry.

All the while, his response is I'm just doing my job. I'm just following the law. Haskell says he has no racism in his heart, but we know his wife does. She has openly called herself a “white nationalist” and makes openly racist statements on social media.

We know Haskell’s actions as prosecutor are aligned with his wife’s views because she applauds him, going so far as to say he’s one of the last true conservatives in Spokane:

Politicians can say anything they want about their intentions. What we as voters must ask ourselves is whether those words match up with their actions, and the consequences of those actions.

At the end of September, three retired local judges took Haskell — and Sheriff Knezovich — to task in the Spokesman-Review for attacking judges who release the accused on their own recognizance and for spreading falsehoods about release leading to higher crime rates.

The actual data, the judges write, is that less than 1.5% of people reoffend in Spokane while awaiting trial, concluding:

“Knezovich and Haskell show contempt for the courts. They criticize without facts. They fail to get evidence to courts. They fail to appeal but instead make public announcements, free from fact checking and accountability.

In their world, an arrested person should be kept in jail on their say so. Woe to a judge who applies the law. In their world, there is no presumption of innocence, only a presumption of guilt. Good luck to the citizen who is caught in their clutches.”

In Spokane, Black, Indigenous and other people of color are disproportionately caught in those clutches, but every year thousands of white people are ensnared, too. These policies affect everyone who is too poor to post bail, and in throwing as many charges as they can at most defendants, the prosecutor’s office seeks the highest allowable bail in almost every case.

We exacerbate poverty in our region by criminalizing it.

Knezovich is not running again, but Haskell is. It’s time for Spokane, as a community, to stand up and say we will not continue to allow an individual demonstrating such massive cognitive dissonance and disingenuous behavior to be re-elected. It’s time to hold him accountable.

We must ask ourselves as an Eastern Washington community, and as a Spokane human family: “Is this who we are?”

Are we a people that will continually believe buckets of misinformation, tacit undermining of human dignity, and complete lack of accountability for himself, his office and its organizational affiliates. The Bible says “you strain out a gnat but you swallow a camel.”

Is that who we are? A community that goes through the motions of attending DEI trainings, celebrating the memory of civil rights leaders without committing to real change, and talking a good game about racial justice while giving systems of oppression and the politicians who prop them up term after term in office?

I know my answer. Do you?


Kurtis Robinson works to dismantle systemic racism and injustice and to mitigate the harm done while those systems persist.

Robinson is executive director of Revive Center for Returning Citizens and I Did the Time. He is a commissioner for the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission, a member of the Governor’s Hate Crimes Advisory Work Group, the Spokane County Criminal Justice Advisory Group, Smart Justice Spokane. He is NAACP State Area Conference Political Action Chair and is the past-president and current 1st Vice President of NAACP Spokane.

Robinson does equity-focused work and mentorship of young leaders as a board member of Better Health Together, The Native American Alliance for Policy & Action, and Just Lead Washington.

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