Seattle city attorney candidate: Abolitionist platform is about ‘scaling back and building up’

Sep 28, 2021, 5:38 AM
Seattle City Attorney abolitionist Nicole Thomas-Kennedy, candidate...
Seattle City Attorney candidate Nicole Thomas-Kennedy. (Campaign photo)
(Campaign photo)

While Seattle’s mayoral race is perhaps the most high-profile showdown in this year’s election cycle, the race for city attorney could very well be the most consequential one. For “abolitionist” city attorney candidate Nicole Thomas-Kennedy, it’s also one rooted in changing how the city approaches its criminal justice system on a fundamental level.

Tectonic changes on the way for Seattle City Attorney’s office

Thomas-Kennedy worked as a public defender for King County for four years, before leaving in 2020 to take on pro bono defense work for activists amid the flurry of social justice protests across the region. A year later, it appeared as though 12-year incumbent Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes would be running unopposed just days before the filing deadline for candidates. By the time that deadline had passed, Holmes had two last-minute opponents in Thomas-Kennedy and Ann Davison.

At least at first, the goal for the former was primarily about starting a conversation.

“Some people were saying, ‘some people should run against Pete [Holmes],’ and I thought to myself, ‘someone should,'” Thomas-Kennedy told MyNorthwest. “Someone should just run against him to at least talk about what other options we could have in this city, instead of the same reform-type ideas that have led us to this moment, and someone pointed out that I could be that person.”

“I had never run for office before, I did not think I had a chance, and I was like, ‘I could do that’ so we could have this conversation,” she added.

There was also a more personal aspect as well, revolving largely around Thomas-Kennedy’s experiences as a public defender.

“Most of my theft cases were all petty theft [where someone] had stolen a block of cheese and one beer,” she noted. “Ninety-percent of the people in Seattle municipal court qualify for a public defender — they’re really only prosecuting poor people.”

That all feeds into her image as the self-described “abolitionist” candidate, a label she says is something of a misnomer.

As Thomas-Kennedy describes it, the goal of abolition at the city level is less about what’s taken away, and more about what’s built in the place of strategies she believes have proven ineffective.

“As an initial reaction, I get why there is that reaction because it sounds scary — it sounds like ‘Escape from New York,’ or ‘Thunderdome,’ or like ‘The Purge,’ but that’s not what it is,” she explained. “The whole idea around abolition is preventing harm and creating healing and repair, and we just can’t do those things while causing the trauma at the same time, and while pouring resources into causing that trauma. It’s a scaling-back and a building-up at the same time.”

In practice, she sees that diverting focus away from systems that she says criminalize poverty, and instead focusing on solutions that don’t revolve around incarceration as the first and only option.

That means putting resources into mental health and addiction treatment, and community-based responders that can lighten the load of police officers, while scaling up existing programs that already seek to address those issues, but have often been significantly underfunded.

“Abolition is scaling up community-based services and resources so we don’t have to rely on cops, courts, and jails for everything,” she described. “… Once we have a court-based solution, the option just becomes incarceration.”

Local Democrat group endorses ‘abolitionist’ city attorney candidate

In a city where so-called “prolific offenders” who have cycled out of prison dozens of times only to quickly to re-offend have frequently made headlines, Thomas-Kennedy points to that as a symptom of a problem that needs new solutions that don’t focus on incarceration.

And while some of the criticism for her positions is centered on concerns that such a policy would only serve to exacerbate Seattle’s existing problems with public safety, she sees the debate over this cycle of re-offenders as further proof that the city’s priorities need to shift.

“I think that the prolific offender question is one of the best ones around this stuff because what we’re talking about is a person who’s cycled in and out of jail multiple times, and that is not working,” she said. “The idea right now is that we have this one-size-fits-all approach: You go to jail and then you won’t do it anymore. But when we have people cycling in and out of jail, it’s obviously not a deterrent anymore.”

Thomas-Kennedy also points out that when it comes to misdemeanor cases, which are the primary purview of the city attorney’s criminal division, sentencing guidelines don’t allow judges the leeway to make “unilateral decisions to keep someone in jail for more than a year” as it is. That belies the need for restorative programs that she says “can respond with a broader range of options that can actually meet people’s needs,” whether that’s mental health or addiction treatment, shelter services, or something else entirely.

With all that in mind, what’s important to her moving forward is to come at these solutions from a place of understanding for all involved.

“We’re making a lot of poor decisions based on fear,” Thomas-Kennedy opined. “It’s not an ‘us versus them’ thing, and that’s the framework that really keeps us from solving those problems.”

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Seattle city attorney candidate: Abolitionist platform is about ‘scaling back and building up’