ANN ARBOR, MI — In five days, Eli Savit will be Washtenaw County’s chief prosecutor and he has big plans to reform the county’s approach to criminal justice with racial equity in mind.
This marks the first time in nearly three decades there’s been turnover in the position. Outgoing Prosecutor Brian Mackie is stepping down after 28 years.
Savit, a 37-year-old attorney and Ann Arbor native elected last month, spoke with The Ann Arbor News/MLive about what people can expect from him and his team.
What day do you officially start on the job and what have you been doing to prepare?
By statute, I take office Jan. 1. We’re going to have a ceremonial swearing-in Jan. 2 and then we’ll start in the office Jan. 4.
We were fortunate not to have a general election opponent, which meant we knew we were going to be taking office after the August primary results, and we’ve been using the past several months to build out transition teams, working in partnership with a wide variety of stakeholders in the community and coming up with policies and partnerships that will really transform the way criminal justice is done in Washtenaw County.
We have a dozen transition working groups ranging across a variety of issue areas. We’ve got over 170 folks that have volunteered their time and their expertise … from law enforcement, from survivor advocacy, from the activist community, civil liberties lawyers, substance-use professionals, really you name it. And I’m just so grateful so many folks have come together and really helped us out with the hard work of crafting policies that balance the various weighty considerations that you want to look at when you’re engaged in the administration of criminal justice.
What’s foremost on your list of things to tackle as county prosecutor? Do you have a 100-day plan?
I’ve got a first-several-weeks plan. The first thing — and I said this during the campaign — is I’m going to be rescinding the zero-tolerance policies (for certain types of crimes) that were maintained by my predecessor.
Zero-tolerance policies prohibit prosecuting attorneys from taking into account the various considerations that should go into any case, really looking at the human story that is at the center of any case involving the criminal justice system.
I just don’t believe in treating all cases alike regardless of the factual circumstances underlying them, so Day 1, we are rescinding those policies.
In the first several weeks, I pledge not to continue to seek cash bail in any cases in Washtenaw County. I don’t believe in holding people pre-trial based solely on their wealth, and so we’re going to be rolling out policies around that.
We’re going to be rolling out policies with respect to certain drug offenses. You know, marijuana. I’ve already made my position clear on entheogenic plants, following up on the Ann Arbor City Council resolution, which made that the lowest law enforcement priority in the city of Ann Arbor.
We’re going to be rolling out policies to make sure if a case is potentially the subject of racial profiling, we’re not charging those. And you can expect followups around juvenile justice, around things such as racial disparities in the criminal legal system. We’ve got an exciting partnership that we’re looking forward to announcing around that.
Can you talk about the team you’re assembling? How much of the staff from the current prosecutor’s office will stay on?
We’ve brought in, of course, a new chief assistant prosecuting attorney, Victoria Burton-Harris, who I’m tremendously excited about. We see eye to eye on effectively everything in the criminal justice system and we ran on very similar platforms. She ran for Wayne County prosecutor and I’m just thrilled she’s coming on board in Washtenaw County.
I’ve got my own leadership team in place, but we are keeping the majority of the folks in the office. We sat down and talked to every person individually and gauged their willingness to move forward with us on a new path, and we’ve got a number of just dedicated, hardworking professionals that know their craft in the office that I think are really both willing and excited to move in a new direction alongside us.
How many total prosecutors are there and how many are staying?
There’s around 30 in the office and we’re looking at building out new units, and I would say the vast majority are staying on. Some folks left voluntarily for other opportunities. Of those around-30, we’ve got about 24-25 staying on.
What is your general philosophy when it comes to criminal justice and in what other ways will you operate differently than the last prosecutor?
We need to do a lot more thinking about what we can be doing to prevent future harm. The truth of the matter is, once a crime has occurred, in a very real sense, the system has already failed … society has fallen down in some respect.
What we’re going to be looking at is data-informed and development-informed and health-informed approaches to nudging people off a path they may be on, where they may be a danger to the community, early on, the first time they come into the justice system. That may be connecting people with treatment resources. For young people, it may be just addressing their needs and what’s causing them to act up.
A lot of times what young people need more than punishment is just a human connection, mentorship and potentially their basic needs met. And we don’t do very well and we haven’t done very well trying to punish our way out of basic human needs crises or health crises. It hasn’t worked and the data shows that.
My priority is, if we are able to avoid stigmatizing somebody with a criminal record, if we are able to avoid putting somebody into jail or prison, and there’s not an imminent public safety risk, we should be pursuing the rehabilitative option.
In more serious cases, of course, I do recognize people need to be separated from the community and their actions have demonstrated that. But again, our goal in the criminal justice system should be preventing things from ever getting to that point and that’s our lodestar.
The other thing I will say is we really need to take a serious look at the inequities in our justice system and how people are being treated differently because of who they are.
It is no secret America’s criminal justice system, writ large, has tremendous racial disparities. Black people are about six times more likely to be incarcerated in the United States than white people, and that’s in a country with the highest incarceration rate per capita in the entire world. And we are not immune from that in Washtenaw County.
Black defendants receive harsher treatment in Washtenaw County courts, study indicates
I believe we need to look that squarely in the face. We can’t stick our heads in the sand anymore and pretend as though racial inequities and racial biases in our justice system don’t exist.
One of the things we’re very excited to be rolling out in really the next several days is a partnership with independent, third-party researchers in which we are for the first time going to drill down and both quantitatively and qualitatively identify and address every instance of racially disparate treatment in our justice system and by our prosecutor’s office.
And where we find instances of racially disparate treatment, we are going to put in place policies and procedures to eliminate them and we’re going to be totally transparent.
Do you plan to always seek the lowest possible charge in every criminal case?
I plan to always seek the lowest appropriate criminal charge and that’s consistent with my belief we should be imposing consequences no more stringent than necessary to protect public safety. But categorically saying we’ll always seek the lowest possible charge — you could always charge a murder potentially as a misdemeanor assault, but obviously that’s not appropriate given the circumstances. The murder needs to be treated like a murder.
But the corollary to that is we shouldn’t be stacking up charges and bringing the highest possible charge just to gain leverage in plea bargaining and just to seek to exact the most pain from the defendant as possible. It’s not rehabilitative, sending somebody to jail or to prison for longer than is necessary to ensure public safety. It severely disrupts that person’s life, it has cascading consequences on their family, and by the way, it costs taxpayers a lot of money. It costs $40,000 a year at least to lock somebody up in the state of Michigan.
Are there areas where you see potential synergy between your agenda and the Biden administration?
Absolutely. I’m really looking forward to what’s going to come out of the Biden administration and one thing that has been proposed is a sort of competitive grant fund for states and local governments interested in enacting real criminal justice reforms.
Criminal justice is really a state and local issue, and so the best way the federal government can move the needle is by offering incentives and grants to local communities and states to support doing things differently. I’ve heard a number that has been tossed around that this fund could be as much as $20 billion.
We plan, if this comes to fruition, to aggressively go after every source of funding, because I’m very cognizant, if the criminal justice system isn’t the answer to societal harm, we still need to address it somehow and we need to do that by building up systems outside of the formal criminal legal system to address things like substance use, to address mental health, to address a young person who may be going down the wrong path.
On the campaign trail this year, many of your yard signs were paired with Black Lives Matter signs, yet you were competing against two Black candidates. What do you think set you apart and appealed to those who seek racial justice?
I think it was about how our campaign started and who we had at the table. This campaign was not something I decided to enter into by myself. It was not something I decided to enter into after consulting with the local criminal justice establishment.
My campaign really had its genesis in conversations with activists looking for change in the prosecutor’s office and we sat together and we planned together and we came up with a platform together for how we could change things and move things in a more equitable direction and prioritize racial equity.
And the folks that are at my table and have been at my table from the start of this campaign are largely Black activists that have seen the disproportionate impact the criminal justice system has had on Black communities.
You have said you want to end the era of mass incarceration, yet one of your opponents said she didn’t think the county had a mass incarceration problem with a prison commitment rate of 16% for felons. What’s your assessment?
I don’t believe mass incarceration is simply a product of how many people are going to prison or how many people are locked up at any given time.
One of the most influential books I have ever read that really crystalized my thinking around the criminal justice system was the book “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander.
In that book, she forcefully made the case, and quite persuasively, we have through our criminal legal system effectively replicated Jim Crow-type policies. Not just because of the fact we are locking up at disproportionate rates minority communities, but because of the collateral consequences that accrue after somebody has served their sentence.
If you look at what Jim Crow did in the south, it prevented Black people from accessing jobs, from accessing housing, from accessing equal educational opportunities. And in a system where we have hugely disproportionate rates of Black people and people of color coming through the system and then going through the other side with a criminal record and a felony record, we have effectively recreated that because a felony record can prevent people from accessing exactly those same things that formal Jim Crow policies prevented Black people from accessing for nearly 100 years.
So, when I hear that statistic around the commitment rate of only 16% for felony convictions, quite frankly, I’m a little taken aback. Because look at the other side of that equation. What you’re saying there is 84% of the people that have been given felony records and now have this lasting stigma on them that prevents them from moving forward in life, 84% of those you didn’t think were dangerous enough to separate from the community.
The question then becomes: Why are we saddling those folks with a felony record? What is the point of that?
The county jail population is already down significantly this year. I sense you’re not interested in filling it back up?
I’m not. And look, this has been a horrible pandemic, but one silver lining is how it’s forced us to rethink our jail commitment rates. I think the sheriff and our bench here did an excellent job in response to the actions by the governor to take advantage of the opportunity to thin out our jail population and ensure only those folks that posed a risk to public safety were still sitting in jail. … I also think during a non-pandemic we should only be holding the people in jail that really need to be there.
What is your response to anyone still concerned you’re coming into this role without any prosecuting experience?
I think that is in some ways a plus. I come from a civil rights, public interest background, but I’ve also been quite cognizant of what I don’t know and I’ve surrounded myself with folks on my transition team that come from law enforcement, that are prosecutors, that are former prosecutors and do have that on-the-ground experience but do see the need to do things differently in the justice system.
My chief assistant has significant criminal and family law experience. And everybody else in the office, everybody else on my leadership team who bought into the vision is a prosecutor and has significant prosecutorial experience.
Change is coming, but it is not going to be change that is uninformed or change that doesn’t reflect the voices of really a broad swath of the community.
MORE FROM THE ANN ARBOR NEWS:
Over $400K in donations fuel hotly contested Washtenaw County prosecutor’s race
Washtenaw County prosecutor-elect names first female assistant chief
See plans for 3-story, mixed-use development proposed in Ann Arbor
Ann Arbor allocates extra funds to help vulnerable residents with emergency needs
Drama, censorship and racial slur punctuate last Ann Arbor council meeting of 2020