“A punishment-oriented approach does not work,” declares Eli Savit, who takes office this month as Washtenaw County’s prosecuting attorney. “It has had devastating consequences for people, has led to tremendous racial inequities and socioeconomic inequities.
“My vision of justice is building a system that is truly rehabilitative and restorative,” he continues—one “that promotes public safety by preventing future harm, and also one which takes stock of the individual circumstances that bring people into the criminal legal system.”
Savit says he “started to think about the inequities and the unfairness of the justice system and the collateral consequences in earnest when I was an eighth-grade U.S. history teacher in New York City. I had kids there who were themselves up in the justice system, whose family members were dealing with substance abuse and were in and out of the jail, and the kids were in and out of school.”
Michelle Alexander’s 2010 book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness focused his thinking. It “brilliantly lays out the harm that the criminal justice system has perpetuated,” Savit says. “A felony conviction can impact your ability to get housing, to get jobs, to get public accommodations.”
The Pioneer High and U-M law grad says he was encouraged to run against seven-term incumbent Brian Mackie by local activists. “They had been seeking somebody to run for prosecutor and change our system from the inside,” he says. “For a very long time, folks had seen the devastating effects that our current criminal justice system has had on predominantly black communities.”
They discussed “what had been going wrong in our justice system in Washtenaw County”—and how to “come up with a plan to change that.”
After Savit launched his campaign, Mackie announced his retirement and threw his support to a former assistant. Savit, a onetime Pioneer basketball captain, charged ahead. Raising more than a quarter-million dollars and collecting endorsements from everybody from local politicians to Bernie Sanders and singer John Legend, he won more votes in August’s Democratic primary than his two opponents combined. Running unopposed in November, he got more votes than Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.
He’s already recruited a new chief assistant prosecutor: Victoria Burton-Harris, who ran for Wayne County prosecutor in the Democratic primary last summer and lost to sitting prosecutor Kym Worthy. “Victoria ran [on] a very similar platform as my own,” Savit says. “It’s great how much we complement each other working towards the same vision.”
Now they just have to deliver on their plans.
Savit says the activists’ core complaint was “the vast majority of people who were coming through the justice system—who were getting charged, receiving harsh and unforgiving sentences—were black people.”
“There has never been any justice in this country for black people in the criminal legal system,” says Burton-Harris, whose own critique of the criminal justice system stems from her “experience being a defense attorney and seeing it up close and personal.” That’s why “one of our first priorities is a racial equity project. We want to see if more black folks are being charged than white for the same exact conduct. We’re going to be working with a statistician and researcher, and we’re going to be analyzing the data from our cases.
“Right up there with the racial equity project is to divert more and deflect more,” she continues. For most nonviolent crimes, “we’re not going to charge you for a certain amount of time—nine, twelve months, whatever—and we want you to instead complete a program. And we want to get to the heart of the issue, the root cause of why you committed this crime. Do you need stable housing? Do you need a stable job? Do you need mental health treatment?”
For people who complete the deflection program successfully, Burton-Harris says, charges will be eliminated without jail time “so you didn’t even have a temporary record. That is how you reduce mass incarceration.”
Savit says his “biggest and most overarching” disagreement with Mackie was his predecessor’s “formal and informal zero-tolerance policies for certain types of offenses.” Burton-Harris emails some examples: “high blood alcohol content charges and operating motor vehicles while intoxicated 2nd degree cannot be reduced nor can gun offenses. Once a felony firearm is on the complaint, APAs [assistant prosecuting attorneys] cannot dismiss it.”
“The problem with the zero-tolerance policies is that they prevent you from looking at the human stories that are at the center of every case,” says Savit. “You need to treat every case with the dignity that it deserves. That’s why we’re getting rid of them.”
They’ll still be “treading very carefully on domestic violence cases. We know that there are specific issues that are particular to domestic violence, including the coercive control that a person that perpetuates domestic violence has over the survivor, [so] we are largely keeping, for the time being, the domestic violence protocols in place.”
Renaming crime victims “survivors” is part of the change. “A victim is somebody that had something done to them,” says Savit. “It’s a more passive nomenclature.” He sees them instead as “incredibly strong people, and the work they’ve done to report their crime, make it through whatever they’ve experienced, [is] active and admirable.”
Savit also plans to review policies that put folks in jail for minor nonviolent offenses like possession of a controlled substance, passing a bad check, or driving with a suspended license.
“A significant percentage of the people who were jailed in Washtenaw County were picked up for driving with a suspended license,” Savit says. “Think about the reason that one’s license may be suspended in the first place. A lot of times it’s because they weren’t able to pay a traffic ticket. It’s functionally a crime of poverty.
“You pick them up, you put them in jail. Maybe you’re being held on bond, so that puts you deeper into debt,” Savit continues. “You plead guilty because you’re sort of desperate to get out of jail. You’re sentenced to a term of probation. If you have a technical probation violation, you could be swept right back up into the system.”
Savit doesn’t “deny the fact that there are some people [who have] demonstrated they frankly need to be separated from the community for public safety’s sake—murderers, first-degree rapists, child sexual abusers, and the like.” But a typical offender, he says, “was at one point a child, probably at one point came in through our juvenile system. Our failure to adequately address those issues at the outset is likely a huge contributing factor.
“My philosophy of justice is you need to be focused on the earlier points in that path, on the first time that a child comes through the juvenile justice system, or the first time that somebody [enters the] adult justice system for a minor offense when they are younger. And at that point, [we need to] do everything possible to nudge them off the path that they are on.”
Doing that, he says, starts with better assessment of young offenders to “figure out what’s going on in their lives. We should get a kid treatment, and we should get them help [rather than send them] to the juvenile detention center. The data shows us [incarceration] makes it significantly more likely that they are going to commit another crime when they are out.”
Instead, he’ll try mentorships. “One of the best interventions for kids is simply hooking them up with mentorship programs that engage their passions—give them an adult mentor that really cares about them. This is something that’s really close to my heart because I started my career as a teacher.”
Even chronic adult offenders, Savit and Burton-Harris believe, could have been diverted with early intervention. Where their predecessors saw career criminals, they see missed opportunities.
I asked Burton-Harris her thoughts on Victor Stephens, who was charged with armed robbery in November after allegedly threatening to kill a man trying to reclaim a stolen backpack.
It was far from his first offense: in 2004, Stephens was Exhibit A in a campaign to expand the county jail when he was arrested three times in a two-week period for breaking into cars. Released each time because the jail was too crowded, he was finally jailed only after he broke into the car of a deputy police chief who chased him down—and only then because the car was in a garage, and home invasion is a more serious offense.
“How about we find out what the hell is going on with him upstairs?” Burton-Harris responds. “Does he have a mental health issue, a drug problem, an alcohol problem? What is it? There’s something, because folks like you and I are not just breaking into garages.
“Let’s find out what he’s lacking to see if we can’t team up with a community agency to give that to him,” she continues, “to work through whatever issues that he may have so that we can stop seeing him. Because it’s a waste of our taxpayers’ dollars, it’s a waste of our time, and it’s certainly not in the best interest of community safety—because he keeps doing it!”
Stephens was back in the news in 2014, when he called the police to remove Aura Rosser from his west-side home. When Rosser advanced on the responding officers with a knife, one of them shot and killed her. After a state police investigation, Mackie concluded that the officer had acted in self-defense.
Savit won’t offer an opinion on Mackie’s decision but does say that keeping “that case in house in the Washtenaw County prosecutor’s office was a mistake. The recommendations from groups nationally [is] that when there is an officer-involved case of violence or misconduct within a local jurisdiction, that local prosecutor needs to recuse themselves and seek the appointment of a special prosecutor.”
But he won’t revisit the case. “I’m candidly not sure what my hooks are because the charging decision was already made,” he says. Changing it now “would take the appointment of a special prosecutor by the attorney general”—which he thinks would be unlikely.
Savit and Burton-Harris aren’t alone in their efforts. “I’m grateful to be part of a national movement towards a more rehabilitative and more equitable prosecution,” Savit says. “We’ve seen prosecutors and district attorneys get elected, and communities across the country that are committed to a lot of these same ideas.” Cities as diverse as Los Angeles, Portland, Boston, and Philadelphia “have already put into place policies and procedures that we are learning from and we are going to be adopting here in Washtenaw County.”
County commission chair Jason Morgan says he’s “very supportive” of Savit’s approach because it’s “very focused on restorative justice and looking at ways to not just prosecute individuals in the community but to really find a way to rehabilitate them into our community and help them be productive members of society.” And Savit says that judges are “not just open to change, they’re working actively on doing it. We did a listening tour around the county with chief judge Carol Kuhnke of the Washtenaw County Trial Court, Pat Conlin of circuit court, who’s taking over our criminal docket starting in 2021, as well as our chief public defender Delphia Simpson.”
He doesn’t expect miracles. But he says they’ll know the changes are working if “fewer people ultimately come through the justice system—[and we have] less crime.”
Shrinking the Jail
While the pandemic surges in jails and prisons across the country, the Washtenaw County jail has had no major outbreaks. One reason it’s been so successful: it’s holding many fewer people.
Sheriff Jerry Clayton recalls that in the summer of 2019, he had 365 prisoners. “This summer, leading up to the fall, we were around 135. In November, the count was “probably at about 181.”
Many factors combined to shrink the jail population. Fewer people committed crimes during the spring lockdown, and police officers were given discretion to issue warnings instead of arresting people found driving with a suspended license. And judges sentenced fewer people to jail and lowered sentences or bonds for those already imprisoned. With fewer prisoners, strict separation, and social distancing, there have been only a handful of Covid-19 cases among the inmates and staff.
Asked if the jail population will go back up after the pandemic, Clayton laughs. “Oh, God, no, I hope not. If we demonstrate an ability to keep that population low and still create a safe community, we should be committed to continuing to do that.”
Jail, he says, is no place for “people with low-level offenses and people with mental health and substance-use disorder situations.” His “strategic objective is to not only reduce the jail population, but cut those people out of the system” entirely.