When Eli Savit assumes his role as Washtenaw County prosecutor on Jan. 1, his policies – like his campaign – will be guided by a team of local activist advisors and other feedback from the communities most affected by his new office.
Savit ran an atypical campaign, with no previous experience as a prosecutor, assembling a team of local advocates to advise him.
"The truth of the matter is I didn't make the decision to run for prosecutor by myself," Savit says. "A group of activists in the community were dissatisfied about the way things had been going in the Washtenaw County justice system for years, and they were looking for someone to bring a challenge to our incumbent."
Trisché Duckworth, founder of Survivors Speak, was among that group of activists.
"I don't look at it as me advising him, but instead I look at it as him collaborating with many people who are coming together with a vision of what the prosecutor's office is supposed to be," Duckworth says. "From the very beginning, he showed it wasn't about his agenda but the agenda of the people." Trische Duckworth.
Ypsilanti Township resident and activist Alex Thomas began to learn more about the national progressive prosecution movement in 2018. He says he was "elated" when he met Savit and saw the potential in his campaign.
"His campaign was definitely different when you look at traditional prosecutors, but he's right on target when you look at the progressive prosecutorial movement," Thomas says. Alex Thomas.
He notes that the national nonprofit Brennan Center for Justice has identified 21 principles of progressive prosecutors, including treating mental health as a health issue, substance abuse as a behavioral disorder, and children as children. Savit's campaign promises are right in line with those principles, Thomas says.
About a week after election results came in, Savit announced his assistant prosecutor: Victoria Burton-Harris, a lawyer whom Detroit-area activists had urged to run against incumbent Kym Worthy in the primary race for Wayne County prosecutor. Savit and Burton-Harris became friends during their campaigns, and Savit initially asked her to be on his transition team, later offering her the number two spot in his new office.
Worthy had defeated Burton-Harris in Wayne County, but Burton-Harris says she feels that winning about a third of the vote against an incumbent during a pandemic, despite not being a household name, shows that there is interest in reforming prosecutor's offices in Michigan and across the U.S.
A criminal defense attorney, Burton-Harris says she initially didn't think the Wayne County prosecutor's office was a good match for her experience. However, she looked into the theory behind progressive prosecution, including a memo by Philadelphia district attorney Larry Krasner, who instituted sweeping changes in his jurisdiction shortly after taking office, and found that progressive prosecutors' ideals resonated with her.
"I had never thought about using the power of the prosecutor to positively impact people," she says. "A large swath of people in the community seem to be invisible, and their needs aren't being met. They're living in constant poverty, and sometimes generational poverty. The justice system is not so just toward them, and it's feasting on these folks."
Savit followed up his Nov. 3 win with a series of listening sessions across Washtenaw County, in person and online.
"I just wanted to go out there and listen to people's experiences with the justice system, their hopes for what the justice system in Washtenaw County could become, and what they saw as the most urgent need for change," Savit says.
On the listening tour, Savit was seeking ideas for change but also asked participants about their hopes and dreams. He noticed a "sense of optimism" from every group he engaged.
"Across the board, despite the fact that the listening tours were focused on what we could do better, there was a palpable optimism about what we can build here as a community in Washtenaw County," he says.
He says common themes from those listening sessions included concerns about racial inequities in the county, and the need for better ways to help those with substance use problems that don't involve "cycling through the justice system over and over again." Duckworth says addressing issues like these through progressive prosecution policy doesn't amount to endorsing lawlessness.
"I'm a survivor of rape at 13 and a half, and I could definitely be one to say 'Put them away and throw away the key' from emotion," she says. "But from a place of healing, it's not just about a crime but about something really being wrong in his mind."
She feels the man who assaulted her should have gone to jail, but often, race plays a disproportionate role in the harshness of jail sentences.
"If you don't take the dynamics of why people commit crimes into account, you're doing everyone an injustice," she says. "For our Caucasian brothers and sisters, circumstances are taken into account for them. There was a young man who raped a young lady, and he got six months' probation because the judge said it would be too hard for him to be in prison."
Thomas says racial profiling in traffic stops and racial bias in prosecution were his top priorities when advising Savit, and Thomas found that Savit shared those concerns.
"On our first meeting, he was looking at a new data point that was highlighting how severe those disparities were. There was shock in his voice, and resignation and no shock in mine," Thomas says. "To get someone in a position of power that really, from a community member standpoint, shares that sense of outrage and is not so tolerant of the status quo … that was one reason I got involved in [Savit's campaign]."
Savit says cash bail policy will be one of his first priorities after taking office. Both Savit and Burton-Harris called for ending cash bail in the majority of cases in their campaigns. Burton-Harris says a 2019 Michigan Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration found that "we're jailing too many people and the wrong people."
She says the community isn't made safer when someone who committed a traffic violation ends up in jail, possibly losing their job and plunging their family into poverty, when someone accused of murder who happens to have money in the bank can pay a cash bond and go home.
That same task force found that when people were released on a personal bond and not asked to pay any money, 87% returned to court. 89% of those who returned did not reoffend.
"We're effectively holding poor people in jail while they're presumed innocent pending trial, for what reason?" Burton-Harris asks. "How does that help a family, to have the breadwinner in jail?"
Beyond ending cash bail in most cases, Savit's early priorities will revolve around a restorative, rather than punitive, approach to criminal cases.
"You should expect an announcement about us and our community partners very soon after we take office dramatically expanding the availability of restorative justice," Savit says.
He notes that restorative justice remedies are always driven by the victim, and aren't about letting offenders off easy.
"If we're really talking about listening to victims and standing for survivors, we need to listen to them when they tell us they want something different to be done," he says.
In addition to cash bail and restorative justice policies, Savit is also planning to focus on policies related to substance use or possession.
"Hopefully we're going to look at these cases through more of a rehabilitation lens and turning the page on the failed war on drugs," he says. Eli Savit.
More generally, he hopes to work on curbing racially-motivated prosecutions and building an alternative to the juvenile court system so young people who have committed offenses can "grow from their mistakes rather than going through the criminal justice system."
"I'm excited for the first few weeks after taking office," Savit says. "There are going to be a number of policy and program changes based on our listening tour sessions, and I think that's something the community is hungry for."
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos by Doug Coombe except photo of Victoria Burton-Harris courtesy of Victoria Burton-Harris.