County prosecutor pledged ‘top to bottom’ reform
Interview by Marcy Stamper
When Arian Noma ran to be Okanogan County prosecutor in 2018, he vowed to seek “100% complete prosecutorial reform, top to bottom,” and to focus on rehabilitation instead of incarceration or convictions, especially in how the county handles non-violent offenders, particularly juveniles. Now that Noma’s been on the job for a year and a half — and with a nationwide focus on systemic inequities in the country’s justice and policing practices — we checked in with Noma.
Noma responded to interview questions via email. His responses have been edited slightly for length and clarity.
In your 2018 campaign, you talked about “over-criminalization” of minor infractions, particularly of young people. One example you gave is truancy, where many youths end up in the adult judicial system. Has the county made any changes to curtail over-criminalization of minor infractions?
We have begun to institute changes, chiefly in the juvenile system. Most felony offenses committed by juveniles are now sent to diversion. This is done for truancy cases as well. Juvenile prosecution is entirely different than two or three years ago.
Similarly, in the adult system, we are not overcharging cases. If a case has enough evidence to only charge manslaughter, we do not charge murder. This may look lenient, but in actuality, it is the correct charge.
Do you have the authority to make these changes and reforms on your own? Do the commissioners have any say in these matters?
The commissioners do not have a say in when, what, how, where, and why we charge any individual juvenile or adult with a crime. The people elected me to bring reform, and I aim to serve the people.
You also criticized the use of excessive bail, saying it contributes to increased costs for the county and locks up people simply because they are poor. Has the use of bail for people who aren’t deemed a threat to society been curtailed?
We do not ask for excessive bail. My staff will only request an amount of bail necessary to secure a person’s presence in court in the future or to protect the community. Because the accused are presumed innocent by law, pre-trial release is presumed. Although we presume release, my office is extra-cautious in its analysis and, if the evidence indicates one will not return to court or will commit harm in the community, then we will ask for bail.
You advocated “100% complete prosecutorial reform, top to bottom.” Can you describe progress toward that goal?
I am working on reform daily. We have made some strides such as the juvenile diversions, but we have so far to go. Turns out, the world don’t like change.
Can you explain that further?
Humans are creatures of habit stymied by fear. I think people fear change in general, and therefore, they will sometimes continue to do things that are not the most efficient simply because it is safe and it is how things have always been done. We must face our fears and try new things if we expect real change.
Has communication and cooperation between the Sheriff’s Office and the county prosecutor changed?
We are in constant communication with the Sheriff’s Office and I believe the sheriff and I have a positive working relationship. The Sheriff’s Office and my office are attending trainings together, including DUI and immigration trainings, but I would like to do more.
Have you been able to reallocate resources, particularly in the juvenile system? Are there examples of shifts from law enforcement and prosecution to social services and health care?
I have not seen a shift in resources and definitely no increase of resources. This is the biggest problem. Bottom line, we as a county need money to combat mental illness and drug addiction. We do not have enough services to meet the needs of the people. It is time for the people to demand more. The commissioners do control the purse, and I must get permission for budgetary items.
If you’ve been successful in implementing changes, are there statistics in terms of convictions, recidivism, and overall community progress?
There are statistics; the local jail numbers are at an all-time low. This is because the career criminals are sent to DOC [state Department of Corrections] and the persons who want help, we attempt to help.
Has the county been able to increase job-training, education, and literacy programs for people accused of minor, non-violent crimes?
Not to my knowledge. This requires funding and the funding is minimal.
What are the biggest concerns today in the county in terms of criminal behavior?
Mental illness and drug addiction. We are not funding the agencies and programs needed to reduce their impact on the criminal system.
In light of the current national focus on systemic racism and serious inequities in the criminal-justice system, can you address the situation in Okanogan County? Do statistics show that certain groups in the county are disproportionately represented in interactions with law enforcement and the criminal-justice system?
The answer to this question depends on who you ask. The statistics and data say “no,” but I am pretty sure that if you polled Native Americans, Latinos and Caucasians in our county, the results you would get would be as diverse as the poll itself.
Bottom line — during its founding, our country made the decision to create the first chattel slave system based upon race and the color of one’s skin. This type of class system forced institutionalized racism and could not be avoided, despite banning slavery.
Although difficult to admit, the truth is that many were bitter over the end of slavery. This is why, once slavery was banned, we got the period of peonage [debt slavery or debt servitude, where an employer compels a worker to pay off a debt through work], then Jim Crow apartheid, unequal housing and education programs, the drug wars, etc. All of these programs were invented and instituted to keep us second-class citizens. Until we address our class system with more than just a band-aid, we will not heal.
The main issue in Okanogan County appears to be the same issue nationwide — inability to listen to each other. Since Muhammad Ali died in 2016, Colin Kaepernick stated his kneeling was in response to police brutality towards African Americans. At that time, police had recently killed Freddie Gray, Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, to only name three. There were more than 250 killings of black men by police in 2016 alone.
At that time, white America ignored anything Kaepernick said and told him he was kneeling to disrespect the American flag. He reiterated, “No, I am protesting police brutality.” Maybe because it does not affect everyone in this country, America told him, “No, you are protesting America and its flag.” How demeaning. He’s a college-educated man. Do we really believe he can’t think for himself?
Instead of telling, maybe we should listen?
How many people work in your office?
We have approximately seven attorneys and eight support staff. We have one attorney who handles all of the civil matters for the county, one juvenile prosecutor, two district court prosecutors (only one right now, but we have a position open), one child-support enforcement attorney, and three felony prosecutors. All other staff provide support.