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Three challengers to incumbent Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell say his office needs a culture change

A current and former employee are challenging Haskell, as well as a Spokane pastor who renewed her law license to run against him.

Three people are challenging incumbent Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell, saying the office needs a culture change.

Larry Haskell said he’s running for another term to address police reform laws the Washington state legislators passed in the last two years.

“I want to engage the legislature in this next term to restore some of those tools and put the message out that lawlessness is not ok in Washington State,” he said.

Haskell, who is a Republican first elected in 2014, argues reform laws have made police officers’ jobs harder and made it more difficult to hold people accountable.

Haskell’s opponents say they’re focused on the culture in his office and the public perception of it.

He’s faced criticism for the last several years from other political leaders and racial justice advocates. They say his office has not addressed racial disparities. They’re also concerned by racist comments his wife has made on social media.

Haskell has condemned his wife’s comments, and promised that his office prosecutes every case fairly.

His opponents, such as Stephanie Olsen, say the damage has already been done.

“That is one of the reasons I left the office because they’re a shadow over it that makes really professional, intelligent, hardworking and caring prosecutors look really bad," she said.

She worked in the county prosecutor’s office for 12 years and now works in the Washington Attorney General’s Office as an Assistant Attorney General.

Olsen said her goal is to restore public trust in the prosecutor’s office, and make it clear to people accused of crime, witnesses, and victims that their race will not impact their access to justice.

She said she is also focused on improving morale in the office and empowering individual prosecutors.

“I believe that prosecutors need more discretion in what they're doing with their case,” she said. “No one should know that case better than the prosecutor that's assigned to it.”

Olsen is also running as a Republican.

She is one of two of Haskell’s former or current employees who is running against him. Stefanie Collins, who is also challenging Haskell, has worked in the prosecutor’s office for 28 years.

She said Haskell’s administration is doing too little to address recidivism.

“I'm tired of churning the same people, the same families, the same crimes over and over and over again,” she said.

Collins, who is running as a Republican, said she wants to start an initiative where people arrested create a plan for how they will change their behavior and make amends for how their actions harmed victims.

“That's why our jails are full of people who do not make their court dates,” she said, “because they have no respect for the criminal justice system and we're not seizing on the opportunity the moment in time that we have to help offenders think about the impact their choices have made and how they're going to get themselves out of the system.”

She said she’s also focused on domestic violence, saying there is a backlog of cases. She said hopes to increase resources to that unit.

She says community perception of the office is also a concern, and said she hopes to be more accessible to the public and the media.

Deb Conklin is the most reform-focused candidate. Conklin said the county should be thinking about evidence-based practices that reduce the dependence on jails and bring down recidivism. She said she’s also the only candidate focused on inherent bias and its impacts on the criminal justice system.

“One of the ways we address it is to intentionally adopt a racial equity lens,” she said, “when we look at everything we do, from charging, to the civil work that the prosecutor's office does, to ask what are the unintended consequences of these choices we make that affect people disparately.”

Conklin is running as an independent and is a pastor in Spokane. She previously worked as a prosecutor in Clallam County. She said she decided to renew her law license in 2018 after she saw Haskell had run unopposed.

“We need a serious change in outlook,” she said, “We need to move from the sense that the best way to deal with crime is to lock people up to embracing what have learned over the last four decades about why people commit crimes and how we reduce recidivism, or repeat offenders.”

Haskell said the criticism his office has gotten in the past year is mostly from people, such as racial justice advocates, who already disliked him. He argues the documented racial disparities in the criminal justice system, such as the disproportionate number of Native American and Black people incarcerated in the county jail, may be a result of who is committing crimes instead of how they are prosecuted.

He argues using a racial equity lens in managing the office is illegal.

“The fact is there is a statute in the state of Washington, not to mention Constitutional principles of equal application under the law,” he said, “equal treatment under the law, and equal justice under the law that prohibits equity or any factor that doesn't go to the crime itself or the criminal history of the accused, that said that there's no factors other than those two in prosecutor's standards or sentencing.”

Haskell is the only candidate with elected experience, before he was elected as prosecutor in 2014, he served as an Airway Heights City Council member.

Stephanie Olsen leads the fundraising in this campaign with $36,000 about two-thirds of which is self-funded.

Haskell is close behind with more than $34,000. The majority of his war chest comes from individual donors. Stefanie Collins has raised about $29,000, mostly from individual donors. Deb Conklin has raised about $12,000 also mostly from individual donors and some union support.

Ballots are due by August 2 and can be returned to any ballot drop box or via mail.