The prosecutor’s ethical duty is to seek justice, but there’s no justice in prosecuting people for crimes of survival and poverty, Nicole Thomas-Kennedy said.
"The prosecutor’s ethical duty is to seek justice, but there’s no justice in prosecuting people for crimes of survival and poverty," Nicole Thomas-Kennedy said. Dawndra Budd
Nicole Thomas-Kennedy doesn't want to be a progressive prosecutor. If elected to replace three-term incumbent Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes, she wouldn't want to prosecute much of anything at all. But that doesn't mean she doesn't want the job.

Over the phone, Thomas-Kennedy said she "impetuously" decided to jump into the surprisingly uncrowded race for city attorney late last week because she thinks "Seattle should have the choice of abolition." That means getting rid of police and the prison system, but she knows that won’t happen overnight.

So for starters, that would mean abolishing the office's criminal division, which would leave room in the budget, she argued, to build up the agency's six-person victim advocate unit and beef up its civil division. She also plans to use the power of the office to lobby the state to end qualified immunity, legalize apartments everywhere, and advocate for other policies that would "make Seattle a more equitable city."

"The prosecutor’s ethical duty is to seek justice, but there’s no justice in prosecuting people for crimes of survival and poverty, or in making the lives of people in desperate situations worse. The very least that the city attorney could do is to stop prosecuting people for most misdemeanors," she said.

Moreover, Black people, Indigenous people, people of color, and those with disabilities are overrepresented among those charged and punished for committing crimes, and she thinks there are "better ways to do this that are more cost-effective and that will actually ameliorate the situation."

Her four years of experience as a public defender and a clear-eyed assessment of the carceral state's shortcomings led her to this position.

Thomas-Kennedy moved to Seattle from Iowa back in 1997. Like a lot of other high school dropouts and teen runaways, she found work in bars and restaurants; first at the J & M in Pioneer Square, then at Jack's Roadhouse, then at "a bunch of places in the Market," and then at the Seattle Ale Houses (Columbia City, Hilltop, 74th Street).

At 26 she said she picked up her GED and started school at Seattle Community College. She'd eventually earn an Anthropology degree from the University of Washington and then a law degree from Seattle University. Along the way, she married, had a baby while going to school, and started playing bass for a sick band called Shitty Person. Last year she started her own defense firm after working for four years as a public defender, but she still does contract public defense, some pro bono defense of protesters, and eviction defense for the Housing Justice Project.

She left the public defender gig due to the Sisyphean nature of the task. No matter how hard she worked, she said she kept seeing the "same people all the time;" the working poor, the unstably housed, all prosecuted "for things like stealing a sandwich, sleeping under an awning," or suffering a mental health crisis.

Jail only exacerbated problems for her clients, interrupting any path toward stability they may have been on. People would lose jobs, housing, and sometimes their own children. "I would have case workers that needed to get their clients out of jail because if they didn’t set foot in their housing they’d lose it. There’s nothing about that that makes the community safer," she said.

Rather than prosecuting and jailing people for committing misdemeanors, Thomas-Kennedy would rather the attorney's office spend more time working to solve the upstream issues from which most of the criminalized behaviors often spring, whether that's poverty and affordability, mental health, or addiction.

"We punish the shit out of people, and we think that's justice. We've all been hypnotized into thinking that a lack of severe consequences for things means a lack of justice. But that's not what accountability looks like, and that's not what solves the problem," she said.

"Hell, if punishments and jails made us safer, then America would be the safest place in the world. But it’s not," she added.

The criminal side of the city attorney's office handles simple and gross misdemeanors, such as traffic violations, DUIs, trespassing, vandalism, some assaults, and some domestic violence cases.

According to the agency's latest report, cops sent the office over 13,000 cases in 2019, and they bit on a little over 7,300 of them. The rest of the cases were either diverted or declined for lack of evidence, lack of victim participation, or some other reason.

Of all the cases they took, the office handled about 1,060 violence cases and about 1,000 DUIs. Of note, the office's Domestic Violence Unit "saw an increase in more serious domestic violence incidents in 2020," with fights between roommates and family members up from previous years.

Thomas-Kennedy said she would want to prosecute DUI cases, since "they're the one thing that it's been shown that prosecuting them does reduce them."

She described domestic violence, however, as a "thorny issue." While she's not "running on a platform of decriminalizing domestic violence," she thinks the prosecution process and punishment in those cases can often do more harm than good.

"We're talking about the lower-level stuff, we're not talking about the more serious stuff," she said, offering an example of prosecutors charging people with "DV malicious mischief" for punching the wall in an argument with a partner, "which is not uncommon."

The no-contact orders between the accused and the victimized person "creates a huge problem for a lot of families" who share housing and childcare responsibilities, she argued. On top of that, "many of the victims in those cases often don’t want to relive the trauma and testify," which makes the cases harder to bring.

"When it comes to issues of domestic violence, we could be focused more on meeting the needs of those victims. If we want to put no-contact orders in place, then where are people going to live? If we want to encourage people to leave abusers, then where are they going to go? What services are going to be in place for them? There's lots of stuff that goes along with that kind of trauma, and none of it is addressed by this system," she said.

Though she likes alternatives to jail, she called the current specialty court systems "coercive" and said forcing people into treatment when they're not ready "is harmful, because it makes people less willing to go when they're actually ready."

And while Homles may be a "progressive prosecutor," she said his line attorneys are not prosecuting progressively.

"They're asking for jail time on trespassing charges. They're going after THC DUIs against young men of color regularly," she said. "I’ve gone to trial for things like attempted furnishing of liquor to a minor, where an unsheltered person allegedly said, 'Hey you want a drink of my beer?' to a 13 year old girl. Thousands and thousands of dollars were spent prosecuting that case, and after a 10-minute not guilty [verdict], the first thing a juror said to me was, 'Why? Why did you do this? Whose decision was this?'"

Thomas-Kennedy continued, "I know he’s done some good things decriminalizing DWS3 [driving while license suspended], but I don't think there’s an equitable future or a safe future in prosecuting minor things that can be dealt with in more compassionate and financially sensible ways."

During his three terms in office, Holmes has run a solidly progressive shop in the face of screeching Safe Seattle types, sharky hardliners, and disconnected suburbanites whose politics haven't changed since middle school. (Those voices will find their champion in Ann Davison, an attorney who lost her 2019 city council bid against Seattle Councilmember Debora Juarez by more than 20 points and then became a Republican just to take a distant third in the Lt. Governor's primary.)

A recent profile in Crosscut does a good job running down Holmes's accomplishments and his goals for the office. Outside of his misguided and expensive embrace of the Nordic model, he led on pot decriminalization, helped stand up successful diversion systems and promising specialty courts, and parried Trump's dumb attacks on the city. As "Seattle’s longest tenured elected official still in office," his argument for reelection relies on a need for "continuity" as power changes hands and the city continues to face several CHOP-related lawsuits, a lawsuit over the new payroll tax, and continued Federal oversight of the Seattle Police Department.

But Thomas-Kennedy sees no danger in swapping horses midstream. The people heading up all that litigation have those situations under control, she said, and she wouldn't make changes to those assignments "unless that was necessary."

"Civil litigation goes on a long time, and I don't foresee a time when there's no litigation going on at the attorney's office," she added. "He can't stay in office forever."