Jun 30, 2021
Today candidate for City Attorney Nicole Thomas-Kennedy joins Crystal to discuss why she has chosen to throw her hat in to the ring against one of our city’s longest serving elected officials, what it truly means to be an abolitionist now, how solving poverty and homelessness will do more to alleviate crime than harsher punishments, and how Nicole’s experience as a public defender would inform her views as City Attorney.
As always, a full text transcript of the show is available below and at officialhacksandwonks.com.
“Abolitionist Nicole Thomas-Kenney Announces Last-Minute Run for City Attorney” by Mark Van Streefkerk: https://southseattleemerald.com/2021/06/10/abolitionist-nicole-thomas-kennedy-announces-last-minute-run-for-city-attorney/
“Pete Holmes to seek fourth term as Seattle City Attorney” by David Kroman: https://crosscut.com/politics/2021/02/pete-holmes-seek-fourth-term-seattle-city-attorney
“How Would Prison Abolition Actually Work?” by Gabriella Paiella: https://www.gq.com/story/what-is-prison-abolition
“In Seattle, 1 in 5 people booked into jail are homeless” by David Kroman: https://crosscut.com/2019/02/seattle-1-5-people-booked-jail-are-homeless
“Five Charts That Explain the Homelessness-Jail Cycle – and How to Break It” from the Urban Institute: https://www.urban.org/features/five-charts-explain-homelessness-jail-cycle-and-how-break-it
“’I did the time’: Lawmakers hear a description of the jail-drugs cycle from one who lived it. But are they listening?” by Danny Westneat: https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/politics/i-did-the-time-an-ex-con-describes-the-jail-drugs-cycle-but-are-lawmakers-listening/
“Opioid treatment in King County jails can reduce crime and suffering” by Dorothy Bullitt: https://www.seattletimes.com/opinion/opioid-treatment-in-king-county-jails-can-reduce-crime-and-suffering/
“Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2020” by Wendy Sawyer and Peter Wagner from the Prison Policy Initiative: https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2020.html
“From homelessness to jail and back: King County tries to halt cycle” by Vianna Davila: https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/homeless/from-homelessness-to-jail-and-back-king-county-tries-to-halt-cycle/
Learn more about the organizations mentioned on the podcast as advocating for alternatives to incarceration here:
Crystal Fincher: [00:00:00] Welcome to Hacks & Wonks. I'm your host, Crystal Fincher. On this show, we talk to political hacks and policy wonks to gather insight into local politics and policy through the lens of those doing the work and provide behind-the-scenes perspectives on politics in our state. Full transcripts and resources referenced in the show are always available at officialhacksandwonks.com and in our episode notes.
Well, today I'm thrilled to have with us, Nicole Thomas-Kennedy, who is challenging Pete Holmes in the race for City Attorney in the City of Seattle. Thanks for joining us here on Hacks & Wonks today.
Nicole Thomas-Kennedy: [00:01:02] Thank you for having me.
Crystal Fincher: [00:01:04] Well, I'm wondering first off, what in the world made you decide to run for City Attorney here in Seattle this year?
Nicole Thomas-Kennedy: [00:01:13] So I realized a couple of days before the deadline to enter the race that Pete Holmes was running unopposed. And that just didn't sit right with me. I had spent over a year working in Seattle Municipal Court as a Public Defender on the other side of the City Attorney's office. And I saw what went on there - I saw all the types of cases that they filed and it really was disturbing to me. I mean I went into public defense thinking like, "Yeah, I know what I'm going to see," but it was actually so much worse than I anticipated. So when I found out he was running unopposed, I really felt like, "Somebody needs to do something. Won't someone do something? Someone should run!"
And then someone on Twitter, Melissa Hall, laid out these reasons why people didn't want to run - like maybe you're a prosecutor and you work for him - you don't want to challenge your boss. If you're a defense attorney, that's - you're working on the other side all of the time, and we have to negotiate with those prosecutors all the time. So maybe you wouldn't want to do it if you're there. If you don't have any criminal experience, then why would you want the job at all? And I don't work in Muni Court anymore. So I was like, "Hmm, I don't have any of those restrictions." So I really didn't think that my campaign would get as much traction and interest as it has. And that's - it's been really surprising and I'm very excited and a little bit overwhelmed about it.
Crystal Fincher: [00:02:52] It can be a little bit overwhelming, but I think your point - one, about Melissa Hall and her Twitter threads. She has a number of great Twitter threads. I'm on Twitter a lot as people, a number of the listeners know, but yes, I can totally see how that would kick off some thought processes. And then realizing someone should do something and then realizing that you're someone and you could do something. So as you looked at what you could actually impact as City Attorney and what would change - what in your mind, if you were to hold the office, would be different?
Nicole Thomas-Kennedy: [00:03:26] So a prosecutor's job is to seek justice. That's their ethical duty, would be to seek justice. And so in thinking about what I consider to be justice - including reasonableness, fairness, things like that - I don't see that what they're currently doing has anything to do with justice. Right now it's really just prosecuting a lot of poor people - BIPOC and the disabled - a lot of disabled people in that court, and I just don't see the justice in that. And so the difference between what I would do and what Pete Holmes is doing is I wouldn't prosecute most of what's in there. I just wouldn't do it. I don't think that - when it comes to problems of disability and - or addiction, I really don't think that lawyers are in the best position to solve those problems. Those are public health problems. And so I just don't believe those cases need to be in court, especially when they're over really minor things - which Seattle Municipal Court only deals with misdemeanors.
And so misdemeanors are punishable by up to 364 days in jail, so not more than a year. So all of these are low-level offenses - and all of these, on all of the people that are charged there, are going to get out of jail eventually. And so, if people are already struggling and then they have to go to jail, what's going to happen to them when they leave jail? If they were unsheltered, they lost all their belongings when they were jailed. If they were - and this happened to my clients sometimes - if they were sleeping in their cars, they would get their cars towed and then every worldly possession would be gone when they got out. The ones that were living paycheck to paycheck - they would lose jobs, sometimes homes. It had a really intense ripple effect on their families and their communities.
And it really just made every single problem it claimed to address a lot, lot worse. And so I really don't see the justice in continuing to do that, especially when I think on the civil side of things, there are things that could be pursued that would lead us to more equity. I think that there's been a lawsuit against the fossil fuel corporations that has been sitting on the back burner for, I think, three or four years now - that I think could be pursued, would be a good use of that office. I think that wage theft is something that could be gone after a lot harder than it is. So right now I think that wage theft is dealt with by the City Attorney, by looking at it from a prosecutorial - from a criminal standard. And that's not going to fly for most things because - well, first of all, wage theft is probably priced out of Muni Court. It's probably at the felony level, would be my guess. But prosecuting isn't the only thing that can be done. The City Attorney can be going after companies that commit wage theft on behalf of the City of Seattle. That's something that could be done that could protect our workers. I think there's a lot more that could be done to protect tenants' rights, especially now that we have so many corporate landlords or corporate management companies.
These are things that are actually leading into poverty and being unsheltered and desperation - and those are the things that drive crime. So why would we make people more impoverished, more desperate, lose shelter in the name of punishment or justice - and not pursue the people who take advantage of those people? So in my view, justice is going after the people that are causing the root problems and that have the ability to make changes. Because I think prosecuting someone for stealing a sandwich? I mean, it's a sandwich. There's nothing about prosecuting and jailing someone for stealing a sandwich that's going to make them less hungry. Everybody needs to survive. And we could be doing a lot more, I think, for the City - if we focus on large-scale change and root problems, rather than the guy stole grapes from 7-Eleven.
Crystal Fincher: [00:08:02] Well, and I think a lot of people are feeling that right now - I think that what we've seen throughout - over the last year - with protests about the treatment of police, what we're choosing to criminalize, and how we're treating that. And conversations about, "Okay, let's actually think about public safety, not through a lens of policing. Or certainly not only through a lens of policing. And if everyone isn't feeling safe and truly isn't safe, what can we do differently to make that happen?"
And then even conversations like we just got done in this past legislative session, following the Blake decision from the Supreme Court, which basically invalidated the law criminalizing simple possession of illegal substances, previously illegal substances - drugs - and having a thorough conversation about whether jailing people for just possessing a small amount of a drug, if it is being used recreationally, where that's usually always targeted to a very small segment of the population, usually disproportionately - BIPOC and poor - and not going after other segments of the population. And that if someone, as you said, actually does need treatment - jail doesn't help, but actually makes things worse.
But we live in a society where there's this mythical belief and some "common knowledge" among people that, "Well, people need that criminal justice system as a motivator to get right. People need jail as a motivation to get right, and if there's not a penalty there, then there's going to be lawlessness. And so you're talking about letting all these people off the hook - you're going to empty these jails, there's going to be criminals roaming the streets, and we're just going to be super unsafe, and everything's going to be dangerous, and Seattle is going to continue to be dying and all of that." How do you address that? Where people right now are used to thinking of not just crime, but criminals, and that fear of "criminals" - and also recognizing that people are harmed. So how do you treat? How do you talk through, "Okay, not prosecuting this - this is how it actually doesn't make you less safe" - and a different approach to that. How do you explain that to people?
Nicole Thomas-Kennedy: [00:10:37] So I think that - so I'm an abolitionist and I think that people, yes, have that idea that if I get elected - I'm just going to open the jails, everyone's going to get out, we're going to burn down the courts, and you know what I mean? Yes. And it'll turn into Escape from New York and just some sort of Hobbesian nightmare. And I mean - first I would say that the US has 4.5% of the world's population, but we have 23% of the world's prisoners. And for women, it's really even worse - we have, I think, like 1.2 or 1.5% of the population of adult women in this country, but 33% of the overall in-prison population of women - which is an intense thing. And actually -
Crystal Fincher: [00:11:28] I did not know that.
Nicole Thomas-Kennedy: [00:11:29] Yeah. It actually brought a tear to my eye the other night when I read it.
But so - I think that if we look at that, like this is the tactic we've taken, right? The tactic that in this country has been like - punish harder - if it doesn't change your behavior, we just need to punish more and more and more and more. And if that worked, we'd be in the safest country in the world and we know that's not true. It's clearly not working. And when it comes to issues like addiction, in particular, I think people have an idea that there is even treatment available in jail - and it's not. I recall talking to a baby prosecutor, like a prosecutorial intern one time, and he said something about a client doing treatment in jail. And I was just like, "Wait, that's not a thing. There's no treatment in jail. It's just jail." And even he was shocked and he was working for the prosecutor's office - but there's no services like that in the jail.
And so - well, okay - going back to your question. I think what I would say I would do is it would not be a one-size-fits-all approach, first of all. But especially when it came to addiction, I think that we should be focusing on harm reduction and having treatment available for people when they want it. Because I get that people think like, "You just need to punish harder and that'll make them straighten up." And I mean, they're fighting for their lives - they're in active addiction. You know what I mean? It's not a pleasant, good place to be. There's nothing - I really don't think that there's - they're already punishing themselves pretty heavily, you know?
Crystal Fincher: [00:13:18] Yeah. Addiction is not a choice and it is not logical. You can't, once you're addicted, it's not like you're choosing to use and you can just choose to stop. It's a condition. It is not a choice. And so expecting logical decisions to result from that, which is like, "Well, they're going to be afraid of punishment and they don't want to get in trouble. Therefore they will make the logical conclusion that they will just not use." That's not how addiction works.
Nicole Thomas-Kennedy: [00:13:42] Yeah, no. Not at all. Yeah. And I mean, I think that there is some recognition now that it's white people with opiates versus Black people with crack in the '80s. There is some recognition now that this is a public health crisis, and that's how it should be addressed. It should be addressed as a public health crisis. There's nothing - I just don't know what lawyers or judges have to do with that at all. It's just - I don't think it's our place. I'm not a behavioral health expert. I'm not a substance abuse counselor, I don't feel that I, or anyone who doesn't work intimately in those systems, knows what the best course of action is. But I do know that what we've been doing is not working. And so if - the question to me is - do we really want to solve this problem?
And if we really want to solve this problem, then we're going to have to work with solutions to the problem. And jail is not one of them. And I know that there's this identification and list of prolific offenders by the Safer Seattle, Seattle's Dying people. What I find really striking about that is that you've identified a list of people who re-offend and who are in and out of jail and the court system all the time. And the solution to that that's proposed is more jail. When, to me, I'm like - if you have people cycling in and out like that, that's an indication that it is not working. Why would we keep doing that? And yeah. And this is, like I said, it's just misdemeanors. Everyone's going to get out of jail. So I think that we need to face these problems. We need to really, really face them. We need to stop pretending that they're going to go away if we just keep doing the thing that we know fails. We need to do something different.
Crystal Fincher: [00:15:51] I think you raise a really good point in just talking about - people are going to be released from jail. And just that attitude of all right, well, "bad guys off the street" and everybody's safe for now and like they're locked up and everything is fine. Well and I think we can see that we've continued to lock more people up and "everything is fine" is not the state that we're in. But also looking at it as locking that up and not providing any services and not providing any treatment for addiction, any behavioral health interventions, any kind of restorative or rehabilitative or educational support to actually give someone the tools to be able to flourish more in life and not be a victim of the circumstances in their lives or be at risk for re-offense. Then we do have to work on actually solving the root problem.
But in your role as a prosecutor, as a City Attorney, as someone who's going to be making prosecutorial decisions, sometimes it seems like - no, you're not going to be prosecuting many misdemeanors, but there still are some that are. And I think you've mentioned before you'd like to put more resources into victims' advocacy and helping people there. But that also implies that there are people there that do need help that's outside of the parameter of the courts. That they do need systemic community intervention and support. So if people are asking, "Yeah, that all sounds great, but man, that doesn't exist right now." So if you're made to be the City Attorney and we still haven't functionally and structurally changed our carceral system, we haven't added any services at the community level to help provide the things that give people the supports to not fall into poverty and be criminalized because of it - then what then happens? Are we just creating a bigger problem?
Nicole Thomas-Kennedy: [00:18:15] I don't think so. Because first of all, I do see the criminal system as really feeding into and perpetuating the problem. If the problem is desperation, isolation, poverty, that's what we're doing to people in the system constantly. So I think stopping that harm, first and foremost, I think will do some good. I think on top of that, there are community groups that do this work. There's Community Passageways - I know they deal mostly with juveniles. There's Choose 180 - I think that they are opening up their program for older adults. But there's also-
Crystal Fincher: [00:18:57] And they both do excellent work as organizations.
Nicole Thomas-Kennedy: [00:18:58] Yeah. They do. And they're effective and they have longterm - they're playing the long game where it's like - we're going to improve someone's life overall, so the range of choices opens up for you and it doesn't seem like there was just this one thing.
But also there are communities in Seattle that have been asking for things forever and have not been listened to. There's just so many meetings I've gone to where it's just like, "Well, I hear the community asking for this. So I think what we should do is get together a task force and blah, blah." No, no - just say no to task forces, you know? No, the communities here know what they need. They know what's going to help them. Let's empower communities to deal with these issues. They already have the plans in place. It's not as if there's nothing there. There's already a lot there. It's just - first, we have to stop the harm of putting people through the meat grinder first, but then also giving those community-based resources - give them resources so they can continue and enhance their work. Because a lot of it, yeah - it's not a one-size-fits-all approach. What works for some is not going to work with all. But I will say, I think that the abusive punishment is not really good for anyone - that doesn't seem to be working for anyone. But I do think that we can build up community resources to do that work. And again, we're just talking about misdemeanors. And so are we going to prosecute the guy who stole a soda or not? I think we're going to be okay if we don't prosecute that guy. I think we're going to be okay if we have some community intervention with that person as opposed to putting that person in jail.
Crystal Fincher: [00:20:55] Well, and yeah, we are just talking about misdemeanors when it comes to the City Attorney in the City of Seattle. A lot of the scare tactics that people use to derail a conversation about doing things in a different way that is not automatic criminalization, especially if poverty, involves the boogeyman of, "Here's this scary, violent person that if we don't lock them up, then they're going to maim and hurt and just continue to be violent towards everyone in society." That's not what we're talking about. To your point, we're talking about people who are being, a lot of times, just criminalized for experiencing different elements of poverty. Like being insecure with food, not having a home and being criminalized because they're sleeping on a sidewalk and then being swept or forcibly removed. It's someone who previously has driven while their license was suspended. We're not talking about murderers here. We're talking about people who predominantly often are doing things that other people either can afford not to do, or that aren't being targeted when they do them.
Nicole Thomas-Kennedy: [00:22:22] Exactly.
Crystal Fincher: [00:22:22] There is a lot of selectiveness about this. So this is, seems like, the most appropriate venue to have the conversation about - what if we actually didn't automatically criminalize people? What if we did start to implement some of these new approaches that we're talking about heavily on the SPD side and really talking about in that conversation. But to my mind, the City Attorney's role in restructuring and reforming public safety and SPD and just the criminal system has been absent from that. What role can you play in that process and in transforming the way that things look from today?
Nicole Thomas-Kennedy: [00:23:09] Yeah, that's a good question. I mean, first I think that showing that we can do things in a different way is going to be really important. And second, I don't really understand where our current City Attorney has sat on the sidelines for a lot of things - and not even made a statement about the sweeps, the unconstitutional sweeps, about all of the incredible brutality and lying we saw by SPD last year. The City Attorney is supposed be the attorney for the people of Seattle. It's an elected position. It's not just appointed by the mayor, you're the mayor's attorney. You're the attorney for the people of Seattle, and the people of Seattle have been brutalized and lied to and their belongings thrown away. And to sit on the sidelines and just say nothing and not explore any avenue for a correction, I think is really a disservice to this City altogether.
And the City Attorney was sitting at the table when the current SPD contract was - that's who negotiated that contract. And so there's just a lot that's not in there, and there's a lot that's in there that shouldn't be in there. And so there's - I think as City Attorney - first, I think acknowledging the harm that the system causes - like really acknowledging it, not just a like, "Oh, it's broken, we should fix it." No, it's not broken - this is the way it was designed to work. It was designed to disappear and control BIPOC, the disabled, and the poor. And that's exactly what it's still doing after a century of reform. It hasn't changed and it's not going to. The system, it's not going to magically transform from its foundation. That's why I'm suggesting we need to dismantle it and build something better. And I hear that Build Back Better thing that Biden says - how are we going to Build Back Better by doing exactly the same thing? It doesn't make any sense. So I think taking on the role of City Attorney and considering it more as the people's attorney and not so much sideline sitting - like be out there, be a champion for the people of this City. And I think that's just something that I haven't seen in that - since 2009, since he became City Attorney.
Crystal Fincher: [00:25:44] Well, I would say so.
All right - so Nicole Thomas-Kennedy, the people's attorney, is what you're running as. So practically, you're running a campaign. Pete Holmes has been the incumbent since 2009. We've had a lot of change with a lot of different people in that time - several mayors, several police chiefs, but he still stays there. Hasn't had many serious challengers, if any serious challengers that have been in the race for the entire race, who've run against him. So looking at how to beat him - how do you become that? I think you initially said - okay, you hopped in, weren't necessarily expecting to be taken as seriously as you've been taken. But now that you're here, are you running to win? And if you are, how are you going to do it?
Nicole Thomas-Kennedy: [00:26:43] I am absolutely 100% running to win. And the way I'm going to do that is by using all of the grassroots community support I've gotten for the ideas that this community has told us for years that it wants, and building on that to really explain a vision of Seattle that could be so much better than where we are. We could be safer, we could be healthier. We could just do things a lot different. We don't have to be stuck in this old way of doing things. And yeah, there has been a ton of change. There has been a lot of turnover, and yeah, I think Pete Holmes is the longest tenured official right now in the City. And he's saying that, "I'm all for police reform and I've done this and I've done that." And it's just like, man, I know that you tried to get rid of the consent decree last year - saying that it had worked. And then everything that happened last summer happened.
And so whatever work that you think you did, or you think got done - it obviously didn't. I think Shaun Scott wrote a piece that I really liked about how - this is the best they can do. This is as far as SPD goes - their contract negotiations are happening next year - and these whole protests were livestreamed on multiple cameras from so many different angles. They've shown us who they are. They're not capable of this level of reform. So messing with these little incremental things, I think is just a complete smoke screen, really. I mean, it just makes the whole system operate. And why? For what reason? If it's not making us safer, if it's not making us happier or healthier, then why are we throwing money away on this? It just absurd. It's just really absurd to me.
Crystal Fincher: [00:28:43] Well, it looks like a number of people may agree with you, because from what I've read from your consultant online - have you qualified for Democracy Vouchers already?
Nicole Thomas-Kennedy: [00:28:53] Yeah. I qualified in nine days.
Crystal Fincher: [00:28:56] Which is faster than City Attorney Pete Holmes, who got quite a sizable headstart on you and you zoomed right past him.
Nicole Thomas-Kennedy: [00:29:04] Yeah. Yeah. I was pretty shocked. Well, I mean, I wasn't shocked because I don't know how long it takes to qualify, but, Riall said like, "Oh yeah. It usually takes like a month-and-a-half sometimes." And so it was pretty - it was very, very encouraging. There was - thousands of people marched in the street last summer asking for change and I would like to heed those calls. And I think that's what Seattle needs and that's what Seattle's been waiting for. And so while I didn't ever see myself being in this role, here I am. So I will definitely take it on and I'll take it all the way because this is what needs to happen. It can't keep going like this. It's ridiculous. More than half of the City budget is spent on public safety and yet people don't feel safe.
And so I think that there's just things that we could be doing so much differently to bring the community together, and also to ameliorate some of the complaints and issues that people have. If people are uncomfortable living next to encampments because there's feces, or there's needles, or there's garbage - those are problems that can be addressed by the City. What can't be addressed by the City Attorney is a lack of affordable housing. We need to really work hard and really put some serious resources behind building affordable housing, getting rid of the apartment ban. And it needs to be a priority because no matter how many times parks get swept, people have to live somewhere. There's no alternative. There really isn't.
And I really don't know why we would be penalizing people who have come together into a community in order to help provide for each other and help provide safety for each other. That's what people should be doing. And there's mutual aid workers in the encampments helping to feed people and make sure their needs are met. Why are we not helping those people? It doesn't make any sense to me. So whether - and I do think that there is some disconnect on - is this really a problem, or is this really a problem just because I saw it? Is the problem me witnessing your problem or is the problem the problem. And so for a lot of people, I think the problem is like, "I had to look at it." And to them - Okay, sorry. I mean, suffering happens. And so if you don't want to see it, then you need to advocate for something to be different and not just moved across the street.
Crystal Fincher: [00:31:46] Well, I wholeheartedly agree - probably not surprising to people who have listened to this program before. But yeah, I mean, it just flat out doesn't work. We tried it and it failed. So are we going to keep doing something that hasn't worked? Are we going to keep thinking that jail, even though we've increasingly used that as a tool, or more policing, even though we've increasingly used that as a tool and we've thrown more money at that than we've thrown at anything else and gotten poor results - that it is time for something to change. And I think that you bring up the stakes and the contrast in this race and that with - Pete Holmes is certainly saying, "Sure, some things need reform. I will stop criminalizing this one thing over here or this other thing over there." And it sounds like you're saying, "We can play whack-a-mole with all of these offenses, but really it's manifesting - it's just a manifestation of poverty and neglect and disinvestment from long periods of time."
And if we actually work on caring for people, especially after so much of the data that we've gotten through this pandemic - and the difference that cash assistance, support, health care, and the accessibility of it makes in the lives of people. Even just the change between congregate shelters for unhoused people to individual hotel rooms - giving them a foundation to actually address the issues that they have. If we focus on those root causes and this significant amount of money that's spent on not addressing those, actually diverting that to addressing those, I think we may have a shot. So I'm definitely interested in seeing how your race continues to unfold. And I really appreciate you taking the time to speak with us today. Thanks so much.
Nicole Thomas-Kennedy: [00:33:41] Thank you. It was a pleasure.
Crystal Fincher: [00:33:46] Thank you for listening to Hacks & Wonks. Our chief audio engineer at KVRU is Maurice Jones Jr. The producer of Hacks & Wonks is Lisl Stadler. You can find me on Twitter @finchfrii, spelled F-I-N-C-H-F-R-I-I. And now you can follow Hacks & Wonks on iTunes, Spotify or wherever else you get your podcasts. Just type in "Hacks & Wonks" into the search bar, be sure to subscribe to get our Friday almost-live shows and our midweek show delivered to your podcast feed. You can also get a full text transcript of this episode and links to the resources referenced during the show at officialhacksandwonks.com and in the podcast episode notes.
Thanks for tuning in. Talk to you next time.