by Mark Van Streefkerk
Attorney Nicole Thomas-Kennedy decided to run for Seattle City Attorney literally overnight. She’d heard that current City Attorney Pete Holmes was about to run for a fourth term unchallenged. She took a night to think about it and the next day, filed for candidacy. It just happened to be the last day to file. Though Holmes has been touted as a progressive City Attorney, Thomas-Kennedy thinks it’s about time the people had an abolitionist option.
Originally from Iowa, Thomas-Kennedy made her way to Seattle in 1996, first working in restaurants and bars in Pike Place Market. When she turned to law, Thomas-Kennedy approached the practice rooted in her own working-class experience. Thomas-Kennedy attended Seattle Community College, the University of Washington, and Seattle University School of Law. She entered her profession first working as a public defense attorney, spending a year working in Seattle’s Municipal Court before eventually launching her private practice as a criminal and eviction defense attorney. Last summer she was the defense attorney for a slew of protester cases, all of which have been dismissed.
If elected to the office of City Attorney, Thomas-Kennedy promises to stop prosecuting most misdemeanor charges. She believes the criminal justice system reinforces systemic oppression, punishing largely BIPOC, disabled, and poor people. Thomas-Kennedy also thinks most misdemeanor charges are a waste of the City’s time and money — resources she pledges to put in the hands of community harm reduction services or groups like Choose 180 if elected.
Thomas-Kennedy recently spoke with the Emerald about how abolition informs her practice and her belief that punitive, retributive justice isn’t really justice at all.
South Seattle Emerald: Tell me a little about the work you do now.
Nicole Thomas-Kennedy: I’m in private practice right now. I used to do public defense, but now only on a contract basis. I also do eviction defense in Snohomish County. I did take on a bunch of protester cases, all of them have been dismissed — that’s back when I quit public defense around late June of 2020. I still take on contract public defense cases and do mostly public and eviction defense.
SSE: Why did you decide to jump into the race last-minute?
NTK: Someone said that Pete Holmes was running unopposed. They said, “Somebody should run, but this is why it’s really hard for people to run against him,” they kind of explained — if you’re already a prosecutor you don’t want to run against him because you might work for him. If you’re a defense lawyer — a lot of us don’t want to be prosecutors — you [might] work in the City Attorney’s office. When I worked in Municipal Court, that’s who I dealt with every day, day-in, day-out. I realized I didn’t really have any of those limitations. I don’t want to be a prosecutor, but that was the only [objection]. I was like, “Well I would run for office of City Attorney — but only as an abolitionist,” and people were really excited about that. I entered the race, I think the deadline was at 5 o’clock on Friday, and I filed at like 1 p.m. or something like that. Literally somebody said something to me about it on Thursday, I slept on it, I woke up Friday morning, and I said, “Okay I can do this.”
SSE: How did you come to be an abolitionist?
NTK: Before I ever became a lawyer I had lots of ideas based on my lived experience that maybe punishment wasn’t always the best way to deal with every situation. When I became a lawyer, I really didn’t want to do anything other than public defense or maybe going after corporations. Then I worked as a public defender and especially the year I spent at Seattle Municipal Court, [it] really hammered home how much the system isn’t really salvageable.
I thought I was prepared for what I was going to see. I thought, I had been an activist. I had been someone who wasn’t stably sheltered. I had a lot of this experience. I went into it thinking, “Yeah, it’s going to be racist, it’s going to be ableist, it’s going to be all these things,” and what I saw was actually so much worse than I imagined. And that’s in progressive Seattle. Working inside the system really hammered home — it’s working as designed. It’s not broken. This is how it was designed to work. It’s always been this way, and it always will be.
I had some really great teachers [like Greg Hinckley and Mohammad al-Madani], both at Seattle Central Community College and at UW. And at SU, like Dean Spade. They did a really good job of shaping and exploring, “What could the future be like if we don’t have this anymore?” Expanding on the fact that it’s not this or nothing.
SSE: How would you bring an abolition-based practice to the position of Seattle City Attorney?
NTK: When I talk about abolition, it’s not just the cops, it’s the whole carceral system. The whole punishment system. Prisons. Jails. I know when people talk about abolition, those who haven’t read a lot about it assume it’s an immediate, “Let everybody out. Everything is decriminalized. It’s a free-for-all.” That’s not how it is. We’re going to take steps towards it. I think getting rid of most misdemeanor prosecutions is an easy and obvious first step. The less we deal with issues like social problems and issues of public health [using] cops and the carceral system, the better we’re going to be at solving those problems.
The whole carceral system just reinforces all the injustices that we see from officers. I know there is this idea of “Oh we can prosecute cops,” but how often does that happen? It’s so rare, it’s like a fairy tale. The one most heinous cop of all time gets prosecuted. It’s not an adequate system for dealing with that, and it’s not an adequate system for dealing with poverty, racism, disability, addiction. Especially mental health and addiction — those are mental health problems, they’re not legal problems. The legal system isn’t going to solve those problems. I think that moving away from using cops to address those problems — and moving away from prosecuting people who are in the midst of those problems — is going to work towards eventual abolition.
First, let’s abolish misdemeanors. We don’t need them. It’s not working.
SSE: On your website it says you are for the decriminalization of drugs, decriminalization of sex work, and ending the homeless sweeps. Tell me more about your stance on those issues.
NTK: Drugs are a public health crisis. Now that white people are swept up into these patterns of addiction, there’s some recognition that that’s what it is. Whereas before when rampant drug addiction was destroying Black communities, it was seen as a moral failing or a criminal problem. I think more people are ready to look at it in a new way.
When it comes to drugs or any kind of sex work stuff — people get out of jail. They’re not in jail forever. Being in jail doesn’t make you any less likely to be addicted, it doesn’t get easier for you to recover from addiction, it just destabilizes people. Also I think there’s this idea that if you’re in jail you can’t get drugs. I’m like, “Man, I wish I was privileged enough to believe that.” That’s not the reality.
When it comes to sex work, I just don’t see the state’s role in that at all. I just think it’s absurd, really. The idea behind criminalizing sex work was making things safer for women, but there’s women who are doing sex work right now who are telling you, “This is not making us safer.” If the goal is to empower people and make them safer working within that industry, then there’s ways to do that. Decriminalizing is going to make it a lot easier for them to access those things. I’m not going to say I know what all of those things are, but there’s a lot of people who do. I know there’s been more of an emphasis on arresting johns instead of sex workers, but it’s all the same stuff. It’s a gigantic waste of money. It just isn’t a place for the criminal system at all.
If the goal is just retribution, that’s not justice.
SSE: It sounds like you want to shift the attitude away from retributive or punitive justice to more of a lens of “What does it look like to have a safer community?”
NTK: Right. I think the resources that are currently devoted to prosecution of misdemeanors could go for things that are going to make the community safer, things that are going to create health and stability for everyone who lives here. I think there’s this idea of “It doesn’t affect me, until I see a needle on the sidewalk — NOW do something about it.” I wonder, is it really about what you are seeing, or is it about something else? If the issue is there’s garbage everywhere and there’s needles on the ground and feces everywhere, then why not have extra garbage pickup? Why not provide bathrooms? All the sweeps do is move the problem around. Each time it makes things worse.
We have such an intense housing crisis. I don’t think we need to be breaking up systems and communities of people who find each other and rely on each other for safety. That’s what being in an encampment provides. We live in a society where we’ve decided it’s okay for someone to be a billionaire and it’s okay for other people to starve — there’s going to be problems in that society. Problems of poverty. I think using the resources of the City Attorney’s office to be reallocated for things like low-barrier housing and harm reduction are going to actually work to make the city a lot safer. The sweeps don’t change anything, it just moves the problem around, and it makes people less stable. It’s the same with a lot of misdemeanor stuff — it doesn’t address the problem.
SSE: In an article in The Stranger, you brought up the fact that there are some laws around domestic violence issues that rarely solve or improve the situation. In your opinion, what does work in those situations?
NTK: That’s a really hard question. I think that as a lawyer I should stay in my lane a little bit and not profess to know the solutions to those problems, but when it comes to domestic violence issues, I think it’s absurd that the way we deal with domestic violence, dominance, and aggression is with more dominance and aggression. As if that’s going to solve the problem. It’s also remarkable how much it disempowers the victim. A prosecutor isn’t prosecuting on behalf of the victim, they’re prosecuting on behalf of the City. The victim is not represented at all.
I think that we can make a lot of people safer if we ask the people who have experienced domestic violence, “What do you need?” Whether that’s childcare, housing, transportation, these are all things that, if we want to make people safer, this is what we’d be looking at. The maximum sentence on a misdemeanor is 364 days in jail, and almost no one gets the max, because that’s a huge waste of money. Even if they did, after a year they’re going to get out of jail, and are they going to be more stable? Are they going to be in a better position to address their behaviors? No, they’re going to be destabilized, they’re going to be more desperate. I think that a lot of DV prosecutions are kind of looking in the wrong place, I would say.
SSE: Do you think past efforts to reform the Seattle Police Department have been effective?
NTK: No. Not at all. The Consent Decree, which was put in place many years ago, is often being used as a shield by SPD. When we’re talking about defunding the police they say, “Oh you can’t defund us because then we’ll fall out of compliance with the Consent Decree.” I think it’s wholly ineffective and it was on display for everyone to see this last summer.
Shaun Scott just wrote a piece about this is as good as they can do, and that’s what they’re telling us. They’re saying — every time that they’re challenged — they say their actions are justified because of x, y, and z. All of the attempts to reform SPD have kind of resulted in more bureaucracy, more expensive technology, but it hasn’t worked on the ground. It’s something that just continues to cost the City money that is not effective. I mean, police reform has been on the table for a hundred years, and we haven’t really made any inroads.
SSE: What do you think about current City Attorney Pete Holmes?
NTK: I think when Pete Holmes first got into office, he did some really good stuff. Stuff around immigration and not prosecuting “driving while poor.” He’s done some good stuff. But he’s been in office for over 10 years. He’s had 10 years to deal with these problems, and we’re still where we are. I know there is this impression that Pete Holmes is a progressive prosecutor, but that was not my experience when I worked in his court at all [in 2017-2018]. I think the “progressive” side is moving people into probationary or diversion programs, but from what I saw working at Seattle Municipal Court, I’ve seen those programs just revert back to punishment over and over again.
There was a version of community court at Seattle Municipal Court a few years ago, similar to the short-lived “needs-based sentencing,” in recognition of the fact that people were impoverished or did have underlying problems, and over time those morphed back into just putting people into jail. I think doing things that way atomizes the problem, makes those things about a specific individual, rather than the system as a whole.
I think the biggest difference between us is I think we need to stop throwing away money on shit like that. We need to stop expecting the legal system to solve social and health problems. We need to partner with people who actually know how to do the work, who actually know what they’re doing, who have ideas because they are out there.
The biggest difference is I would like to see most of that office, the criminal side, not do anything. The biggest difference is I don’t believe the system is redeemable. My goal as a prosecutor would be to dismantle it, not to try to fit it into some sort of a softer punishment system.
SSE: What do you hope people take away from this Q&A with you?
NTK: I hope that from this interview people understand that our current system is failing, it’s expensive, and that the legal system isn’t the answer to all of society’s problems, and that that money should be reallocated to the people who can best assist the community and know what that community needs. It shouldn’t go to any task forces or data collection or any of that shit — we already know that’s not working. There are people out there with ideas in their own communities, and that’s who I think we should be giving money to.
SSE: Why do you think people should vote for you?
NTK: I would want people to vote for me because I hope they know that the punishment system that’s in place right now primarily affects BIPOC and the disabled and the poor. I hope that there’s a realization that in and of itself — that’s an injustice. I hope that people can see that there is a way forward, rather than continuing to do something that’s harmful. If people can see that there is a way forward, if people can recognize that this is not working — I hope that they vote for me.
I want people to know that there isn’t a choice between safety and compassion. It’s not either punish severely or we’re all unsafe. Punishment isn’t working. Why would we continue to do something that isn’t working? We need to try different tactics.
Find out more about Thomas-Kennedy at her website ntk4justice.com.
📸 Featured Image: Defense Attorney Nicole Thomas-Kennedy is a last-minute candidate for office of Seattle City Attorney. As an abolitionist, Thomas-Kennedy promises to end most misdemeanor sentences, and reallocate funds from criminal prosecution to harm reduction groups. (Photo by Cory Parris)
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