Community leaders call on prosecutor to change court forms to protect immigrants; Haskell refuses

click to enlarge Community leaders call on prosecutor to change court forms to protect immigrants; Haskell refuses
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Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell

To the cohort of community organizations asking Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell to reconsider his stance on a courtroom agreement that could unfairly impact immigrants, the prosecutor has a suggestion.

"It is neither the duty of the law nor the prosecutor to take personal steps to ameliorate the consequences for committing crimes in our community," Haskell writes. "To do so would reduce the effect of, and respect for, following the law in the first place. If a criminal defendant has concerns about consequences of unlawful conduct, I strongly encourage law-abiding behavior."

Put another way: If people charged with crimes don't like the way Haskell runs his office, he suggests they stop committing crimes.

Haskell is writing in response to a letter signed by Rick Eichstaedt, the executive director of the Center for Justice, and 15 other community leaders. The letter requests a meeting to discuss his previous refusal to tweak the language used in court agreements, known as Stipulated Orders of Continuance, that allow defendants to avoid jail time if they stay out of trouble.

Their concern is that while the agreements can benefit U.S. citizens, they can also be used in federal immigration court to start deportation proceedings. Additionally, the letter states, Haskell's policy is out of step with other prosecutors.

Benton, Walla Walla and King counties have used "immigrant-safe" language for these agreements without issue. Spokane City Prosecutor Justin Bingham has allowed "immigrant-friendly" changes to these types of agreements in city cases, though only on rare occasions.

What kind of agreements are we talking about here?

They're known as "Stipulated Orders of Continuance," or SOCs. Basically, these agreements give criminal defendants a chance to keep their records clean as long as they can stay out of trouble for a given period of time — typically one or two years. If, at the end of the agreed-upon timeframe, a defendant hasn't been charged with another crime, the prosecutor dismisses the charge.

In exchange, defendants agree to the accuracy of the police report. So if they violate the agreement, by say, committing a new crime, they cannot challenge officers' accounts of what happened. A judge then determines whether a person is guilty or innocent based on the police report.

OK, so what does that have to do with immigration?

The central point of this debate has to do with the definition of "conviction."

Under state law, an SOC agreement is not considered a conviction. But, under federal immigration laws, without tweaking the language, an SOC agreement can be considered a conviction, attorneys say. That means people who have not been convicted of any crime could face deportation proceedings in immigration court.

The recent letter to Haskell argues that noncitizens who are in the country legally, such as legal permanent residents, refugees and asylees, are in greater jeopardy than those who came to the U.S. illegally.

"Undocumented persons who are found to be present in the country without permission will be placed in removal proceedings solely on that basis," the letter says. "Immigration officials do not need the weight of an SOC to expedite the process. The immigration-safe language is meant primarily to protect those who are legally present within our borders, and to provide them with the same opportunity given to citizens who enter into those agreements: a chance to make things right."

This issue first popped up last November, when Haskell responded to another letter from the Spokane County Human Rights Task Force, which has also signed onto the most recent letter along with World Relief Spokane, the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, the ACLU of Washington, the Spokane Chinese American Progressives, Catholic Charities Spokane, the Tenants Union of Washington State and others.

In his response last year, Haskell refused to change language Spokane County's SOC agreements to make them more immigrant friendly. He argued that doing so would weaken the deal for the state while strengthening it for defendants. Plus, Haskell says, changing the agreement for immigrants could give them an unfair advantage over U.S. citizens.

"If a criminal defendant is concerned that a [Stipulated Order of Continuance] may jeopardize his or her status in this country or are concerned that they may not be able to comply with the conditions of that SOC, they are not required to enter into it," Haskell wrote last year.

The most recent letter signed by 16 local community leaders refutes Haskell's response.

In part, the letter cites the Washington State Resource Guide for Judges, which "specifically states that an SOC that requires a defendant to stipulate to the accuracy of a police report constitutes a conviction for immigration purposes."

In a follow up email, Eichstaedt emphasized the group's wish to meet with Haskell to "craft a solution."

"Taxpayers should not have to bear the cost of losing SOCs as a tool, and immigrant members of our community deserve to be treated in the same manner as everyone else," Eichstaedt writes.

As of Monday evening, Haskell had not decided whether he intends schedule a meeting.