How a Rotary presentation on "racial inequities" helped lead to criminal justice administrator Maggie Yates' resignation

click to enlarge How a Rotary presentation on "racial inequities" helped lead to criminal justice administrator Maggie Yates' resignation
Maggie Yates: "We need to acknowledge that this is something worth talking about."

For three-and-a-half years, Maggie Yates helped lead criminal justice reform efforts in Spokane County. The Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation had contributed nearly $4.5 million in grants to try to safely reduce the inmate population in the county's jail and to address racial disproportionality.

She resigned her position as regional law and justice administrator the first week of January.

In her resignation letter to Spokane County CEO Scott Simmons, she expressed pride in launching programs like the Criminal Justice Information Hotline, free rides to court, and court access at shelters but concluded "it's clear that I'm no longer the right fit for the role given the County's current priorities."

This wasn't a resignation about spending more time with her family or about being ready for new challenges. It was about whether she was allowed to do her job.

"I wasn't able to continue to push for the work of the office," Yates tells the Inlander. "I just wasn't able to continue to ensure that we were pursuing a criminal justice system that is fair, efficient and equitable."

To some degree, it was inevitable that Yates' job would become increasingly difficult: We've had almost two years of debates about George Floyd and "defund the police" and protests and police brutality and riots and legislative reforms and backlash to that legislative reform. We've had a Spokane County prosecutor who's decried his wife's White nationalist online comments as "racist," but argued that his wife was not racist. We've had legislators in multiple states clamoring to make even teaching about systemic racism illegal.

As Yates navigated this morass, she says it became clear that Spokane County was uncomfortable with a central part of her job: talking about racial disparities.

As just one example, the racial inequity is starkly visible in the jail dashboard she helped build: In a snapshot in February, there were 120 Black people jailed — equivalent to a little over 2 percent of the entire Black population of the city of Spokane. Compared to the population of Spokane, Black people were jailed at a rate over eight times the rate for White people. It's even starker if you compare it with Spokane County.

"We need to acknowledge that this is something worth talking about, and something that is worth solving," Yates says.

Even now, three months after her resignation, Yates is wary about getting into specifics. But public records show that even something as simple as presenting county data on racial inequities to a community group could ignite a firestorm.

By Any Other Name

Yates wasn't the one who wrote the controversial title — or the second also-controversial revised title — for her Oct. 28th presentation to Spokane Rotary Club 21.

The Spokane County Bar Association's Systemic Racism Task Force first proposed Yates' presentation to Rotary under the title "Solutions to Systemic Racism in our Regional Justice System." But attorney Janaé Ball, head of the task force, says they quickly got pushback from Rotary over whether the proposed title was polarizing.

"I remember calling Maggie and just being very upset," Ball says. "We can't even agree on the word. How are we even supposed to have meaningful discussion if we keep fighting over the word to use?"

"Systemic racism" is one of those phrases that gets interpreted like an inkblot test.

Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich decries the term as a simple catchphrase used by "a bunch of people that do nothing more than want to divide a nation," and suggests the only way it's possible for a criminal justice system to be racist is if the judges, prosecutors and cops who run it are all personally bigoted.

But to someone like Yates, systemic racism is more complicated — combating it is more about looking at ways that seemingly race-neutral policies can have disparate impacts on different populations.

Ball says her group, grudgingly, offered a compromise alternative name for the presentation: "Solutions to Entrenched Racial Inequities in our Regional Justice System." But that was controversial too.

Kyle Weir, president of Spokane Rotary Club 21, says multiple Rotary members wanted him to pull the plug on the presentation.

"Needless to say, I've already received negative feedback just based [on] the title alone," Weir wrote in an email to Mark Richard, then president of the Downtown Spokane Partnership. "It's too late to pull the program, and I don't think it would be fair to all concerned to pull it."

Instead, he proposed looking to find another speaker for "some balance."

"These kinds of conversations need to happen. They need to happen in a balanced and fair environment," Weir tells the Inlander. "It's easier said than done in this polarizing environment."

Richard fired off an email about the program's title to Knezovich, thanking the sheriff for being "willing to speak up."

"Are you aware of and do you support the message being presented?" Knezovich wrote in his own email to Simmons and the county commissioners.

County communications manager Jared Webley remembers his own reaction to the title of the presentation was that the use of the word "entrenched" implied a kind of intentionality — that some person or group had created the problem.

"It sounds purposeful," Webley says. "'Entrenched' is a fiery word. A trigger word."

Simmons, the county CEO, says he reached out to Yates, seeing it as a "coachable moment," and encouraged her to make sure to communicate with the county about information she'd be sharing in future such presentations.

But public records show Yates saw the conversation differently. In an Oct. 22 email to Simmons, she wrote that she understood that, while he wasn't asking her to cancel her presentation, "I should proceed with an awareness of the discomfort at the County around discussions of systemic racism."

She remained "a bit perplexed" about how to do her job, she wrote, "without fully discussing racial disparities, systemic racism, and relevant solutions."

"If you or the Board have additional thoughts or clarity, let me know," Yates wrote.

She never got a response.

"I get 100 emails, and I don't have a chance to go through all of them or respond to all of them," Simmons says. He now says he doesn't even remember seeing her email.

click to enlarge How a Rotary presentation on "racial inequities" helped lead to criminal justice administrator Maggie Yates' resignation
Young Kwak
Sheriff Knezovich says proposed reforms are driven by "junk science."

Stats and Static

"I found it unsettling that there was such pushback for Maggie's presentation," Ball says. "A lot of the data is not even race-related."

Indeed, much of her presentation focused on how COVID created a kind of natural criminal justice experiment: For years, criminal justice reformers in Spokane debated how to reduce the jail population in Spokane. Then COVID hit, and suddenly, almost in one fell swoop, due to lockdowns and social distancing requirements, the jail population was cut by nearly 40 percent.

And yet, crime didn't seem to spike — at least not the way you might expect. Reports of serious property crimes fell. Across the country there was a huge increase in homicides, but when Yates drilled down, she didn't see any increase in recidivism rates from violent criminals.

"What we found was that the rate really remained stable," Yates says. "That indicates that the folks who were released from jail during the pandemic were not accounting for that increase in violent crime."

And yet, even that shift raised issues of racial disproportionality. The White population in the jail fell by a third — the Black population only fell by 12 percent.

"According to Maggie and her studies, they didn't fall across the board the same so therefore, things are systemically racist," Knezovich scoffs.

In January, Knezovich — along with Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell — presented a rebuttal to Yates' presentation, giving Rotary the other side they asked for. He accuses her of cherry-picking her data, noting that, for example, she only looked at violent crime in Spokane, and not the big 2020 spike in property crime in Spokane County's data. (The bulk of the increase Knezovich points to, however, came from fraud — unemployment fraud skyrocketed in Washington during the pandemic — instead of more serious property crimes.)

Knezovich's objection to Yates goes deeper than data. He suggests that he was the reason the county commissioners hired Yates in 2018 in the first place.

"I am the one that convinced them to give the kid a shot," Knezovich says of Yates, a 34-year-old woman with a law degree. But he says his view has since soured.

"Maggie's an activist," he says. "Maggie has drank the Marxist philosophy of critical criminology. And she doesn't believe anybody should go to jail."

Pressed on his own explanation for the racial disparities in crime data, Knezovich does believe there are lingering systemic socio-economic impacts of racism. A century of slavery and a century of Jim Crow continue to have impact on overall crime rates, he says.

"We haven't exactly always lived up to the creed of our nation," Knezovich says.

He believes the criminal justice system is biased against poor people, that historical racism left more Black people in poverty, but he doesn't see any reason to believe that the criminal justice system has a racial inequity problem.

Instead, he turns the conversation toward Black homicide rates nationwide, toward Black people not showing up for the job apprenticeship program he helped create, toward slamming specific local Black activists for infighting and not creating a solution.

"We have people out there that want to keep us drug back into the past, rather than looking at a future that is much brighter than what we've ever had," Knezovich says.

He dismisses even the basic premise of comparing, say, the share of arrests of Black people with the share of the population of Black people in Spokane County.

"'Racial proportionality' is truly junk science," Knezovich declares. "It doesn't tell you the 'why.' It just gives you the number."

Eastern Washington University professor Ed Byrnes, who has conducted studies on local law enforcement's racial justice disparities, chuckles at Knezovich calling a key piece of his own work "junk science."

Byrnes says his examinations of the Spokane Police Department in 2015 and 2017, for example, found the kinds of stops where an individual police officer showed statistically significant racial disparities. Most revealingly, when the traffic unit conducted stops — the kind often conducted by officers who were "1,000 feet away, shooting a radar gun," too far away to see a driver's race — that disparity disappeared.

In 2020, however, the Spokane Police Department told him they no longer needed his services. Both the police and the county sheriff switched to using a company — Police Strategies — that uses a method much less likely to identify possible racial bias.

City Council President Breean Beggs, a police reform advocate, argues that overall it's easier to get traction with conversations about racial disparities than it once was. But he also argues that leaders like Knezovich and Haskell seem to have taken the debate personally.

"In order to defend themselves, they're trying to argue that systemic racism doesn't exist," Beggs says. "In their efforts to defend the system — which is kind of indefensible — they have been exhibiting more racist behavior and more racist comments. It's the worst of all possible worlds."

Beggs used to be on the Spokane Regional Law & Justice Committee with Yates, a group meant to guide criminal justice reform in the county. But even before Yates resigned, Beggs was booted off: At the urging of Haskell, the number of seats on the committee had been slashed.

Yet, both Yates and Beggs see flickers of optimism. Beggs and Knezovich both agree they're not all that far off in terms of their vision for a new criminal justice facility focused on those with mental health and substance abuse issues.

"It's not a zero sum game," Yates says. "Making sure that our criminal justice system is just for everyone, regardless of race or income is something that makes this the Spokane that I think we all want." ♦

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Daniel Walters

A lifelong Spokane native, Daniel Walters was a staff reporter for the Inlander from 2009 to 2023. He reported on a wide swath of topics, including business, education, real estate development, land use, and other stories throughout North Idaho and Spokane County.His work investigated deep flaws in the Washington...