On August 4, Democratic candidates Eli Savit, Hugo Mack and Arianne Slay are vying for your vote for the Washtenaw County Prosecutor’s position. No elected official has more power to end mass incarceration, racial injustice and the astronomical spending that bolsters the carceral system.
The County Prosecutor is in charge of all felonies and misdemeanors charged under state law. This includes both adult and juvenile charges. The three candidates are running on reform platforms, but in crucially different ways.
Below are heavily excerpted, and often reworded, interview responses regarding their definitions of restorative justice, and how they will use that model to create out-and-out change in the county justice system.
What is your definition of restorative justice and do you think it can be used in cases of violent crime?
Savit: Restorative justice is a process by which, after a period of intense preparation, and if the survivor of the crime so chooses, the survivor and the person who committed harm come together in a sort of mediated session. And unlike the traditional adversarial criminal justice system, where the person who committed harm is disincentivized from taking responsibility for the harm, that person acknowledges and takes responsibility for the harm they committed. Then the survivor of the harm comes up with a concrete plan for how amends can be made. The survivors of a crime get a lot more out of it.
In regard to using restorative justice with violent crime, it is always at the survivor’s choice. The powerful statistic from what Common Justice is doing in New York is that when given a choice between the adversarial justice and the restorative justice model, “90% [of victims] choose restorative justice” [Danielle Sered, director of Common Justice and author of “Until We Reckon”]. I believe that if we are really committed to standing up for survivors, we should be listening to them and respecting them as human beings. If they want to go through that process, I don’t see a reason why the state should hold them back from doing so. “Until We Reckon” cites studies showing that survivors report 80-90%rates of satisfaction with restorative processes, as compared to 30% for traditional court systems.
I know everybody in this race is talking about restorative justice, and that’s great. I will note that I am the candidate endorsed by Restorative Justice International, which is an umbrella group of over 6,000 restorative justice groups and practitioners across the globe. I think that endorsement demonstrates that I am serious about it and am going to work to bring restorative justice here to Washtenaw County.
Slay: Restorative justice involves accountability, atonement and allows everyone a safe space to discuss how this has affected them to move forward for healing. I think this will have a direct effect on recidivism rates.
Mack: Restorative justice is the system, the philosophy, where making people whole is the best use of the criminal justice system. It was started by some religious folks based on Judeo-Christian beliefs of restoring people to wholeness. It doesn’t always mean somebody has to end up with a conviction or a felony.
How would you demonstrate the use of restorative justice as prosecutor?
Mack: So, if I’ve got a case where, let’s say, somebody’s mountain bike was stolen, and we can recover that mountain bike, my first concern is how do we make the victim whole. We obviously want to return the bicycle to them, but maybe they need an apology. That’s only natural. Maybe they need some kind of restitution. Before we get too far in the system, I want the defense attorney, the defendant, someone from my office and the victim to at least have a chance to talk and see if we can work something out — and believe me, I think you’re going to find that a lot of cases can be worked out.
As a juvenile public defender, for example, I defended hundreds of young people, and it was always with an eye toward restorative justice, before restorative justice was cool.
When I’m the Prosecutor, the main focus is going to be the victim. With violent offenders, there may be redemption possible that a victim sees in a perpetrator doing counseling, a healing circle, probation, jail, prison; all those things will be on the table. But for me, in terms of a violent offense, there’s nothing more devastating we can do than to assault a person’s humanity. So, I will deal with violent offenders as necessary and sometimes we can make people whole without putting the offender in prison for 20 or 30 years.
Slay: I have a deflection and deferment program for the city of Ann Arbor. With deflection, we don’t actually charge you for a crime; we look for a community-based diversion program. I also have a diversion program used after you have been charged with a crime. We work with you and community partners to get to the root cause of what caused you to be justice-involved and I will dismiss your case in the end. Almost 80% of my cases in the City of Ann Arbor have been diverted or deflected. Both programs are based in restorative justice, but depending on the situation, we have different versions of that. Sometimes there’s victim-offender conferencing. Sometimes there’s community service, but not as much right now, just for safety [re: COVID].
What I offer, that my opponents have not weighed in on, is restorative justice post-conviction.
I was doing one of my first murder cases, and at the time of the victim impact statement, I was standing up in court with the daughter of the victim and it was horrible. Her mom wasn’t going to see her grow up, stand at her wedding or be there for the birth of her first child. She was just heartbroken. There was sobbing behind me and I had to turn around and look. What I saw was the defendant’s mother and the members of the victim’s family all holding each other and crying. [Both sides lost a family member in the incident.] It was very hard to see. Fast forward another year-and-a-half and I got a call from a family member of that same deceased woman, saying they wanted to meet with the man who killed their loved one. I set it up and they ended up meeting. They wanted to tell him they had forgiven him. Now I believe that this gentleman will be spending the rest of his days in the Department of Corrections, but being forgiven mattered to him and it mattered to his family.
We can’t make anyone participate in these things. There still has to be accountability and sometimes, depending on the offense, it may include a term of incarceration or probation or some type of community supervision. I think they can co-exist, and I think they should, because we need to be able to thread that needle between community safety and rehabilitation. I think my experience gives me an edge because I’ve been doing them for years. I ran the Domestic Violence Unit for over six and a half years at the County Prosecutor’s. I did that for a long time and that experience taught me to be trauma-informed and know when to intervene and in which ways.
Savit: What I’m offering in this race is a fundamentally different way of doing things in our criminal justice system. I’m a civil rights and public interest lawyer. I’ve represented criminal defendants, folks in immigration proceedings, kids with disabilities, victims of consumer fraud, victims of domestic violence and spousal abuse. I’ve seen that the criminal justice system is at the center of a tremendous amount of cascading injustice in our society.
The era of mass incarceration has been driven by the decisions made by prosecutors. And for decades in this country, the only way that you could run for an elected prosecutor’s office and win that office is to have come up through the system and taken a “tough on crime” mentality and approach.
If we are serious about ending the school-to-prison pipeline, I think it’s important for prosecutors to have spent some time in schools. I’m a former classroom teacher. It’s important because I know that adolescents make mistakes. If you want more of the same, then, I’m not your guy. I’m running to bring a civil rights perspective to this work. I think that’s what we need if we are serious about turning the page on the unjust and inequitable era of mass incarceration.
A high-profile case came out of this prosecutor’s office. A few years ago, we had a football fight that was between Pioneer and Huron High Schools’ football teams. It was a large-scale fight that was started after a game. It was actually started by the white assistant coaches, but the black children that were involved in the fight were the ones who were charged with felonies. There were pleas from members of the school board and this community to let this go through the restorative justice process. You do not need to be saddling these young people with a felony record that is going to remain with them potentially for the rest of their lives. But the prosecutor’s office refused to allow restorative justice in that case, despite the fact that for kids, in particular, you talk about restorative justice and internalizing the harm that you’ve done, acknowledging it and seeing the consequences of it; that’s powerful for a developing mind. My disagreement with the current philosophy is one main reason that I’m running for this position.
Can you speak to how you differ from our current prosecutor?
Slay: I left the Washtenaw County Prosecutor’s Office three years ago. I left because I believe that our system doesn’t have to be punitive and it can be more rehabilitative and restorative than it has been in years past. I don’t have blanket policies. I learned a lot being in the office. But I also learned where our system is broken. And so staying in the broken system, once you’ve identified strategies to make it better, isn’t helping anyone.
I don’t believe someone should be in jail because they can’t afford to get out. I believe our jails should be reserved for people who are a danger to the community. They should not be mental health hospitals. They should not be substance detox centers.
The sheriff was one of the first at the table for making releases and asking judges to release people when our pandemic hit. Our jail, almost every day, was operating at-capacity, which is 440 individuals. And with the help of the judges and the sheriff they were able to release the majority of the people. Sometimes they’re down to 130 to 150. Did we really need 440 people in the jail? I don’t think we need to go back to the way we were. I hope we all were paying attention, that our judges were paying attention. Locking someone up isn’t actually doing anything unless it’s protecting the community. You’re not going to go in with a substance abuse problem and come out and be cured.
I have the sheriff, who was one of my first endorsers, and we have agreed to do a program where if you have contact with law enforcement and you are in crisis for mental health or substance abuse or both, and you agree to go into a treatment program that is going to be funded by our new program, The Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion Program (LEAD), then as a Prosecutor, as long as you’re not a danger to the community, I will hold your warrant in abeyance.
Warrant Resolution Day is something I came up with because so many people had open bench warrants in the city of Ann Arbor. Bench warrants prevent people from applying for financial assistance because you’re afraid you’re going to be caught or turned in. There’s always the fear of incarceration, especially if you have kids and you’re thinking “Who’s going to take care of my kids if I get arrested?” So I developed a day with buy-in from all three of the judges where you could walk in and turn yourself in and resolve what to do about your case without the fear of going to jail. I got 16 or 17 social service agencies to come to the downtown Ann Arbor Justice Center. Everyone had their own mini booth and at the very end of it was an expungement table. Volunteer attorneys were there giving free advice on how to get a case removed from your record. At the time, Ann Arbor had over 2,300 open bench warrants. We were able to close, within a period of a week, over 300 cases! Some people walked in and had bench warrants 13, 15 years old — and just the relief! This is how I resolve cases in my court. I try to get you to work with a community partner to help address whatever brought you to the case. So if you can make amends to your community without a criminal sanction, we’ll do that and I’ll dismiss your case.
Prosecutor Brian Mackie has been quoted as saying, “Michigan is the most violent state in the Midwest, with a violent crime rate more than 50%higher than the state of Ohio. Seventy-four percent of Michigan’s inmates are sentenced for violent crime.” What are your thoughts on this?
Savit: I’ve heard that from Mr. Mackie, yes. To tout those statistics as justification for what you’re doing is wrongheaded. If you are saying that we as prosecutors are operating in a state which has a tremendous amount of violent crime, you are saying that we as prosecutors have failed in our duty to keep the community safe. Crime usually starts young and it escalates. So, when you’re talking about violent crime rates in Michigan, we have failed to divert people off the path of criminal activity the first time they come through the system as young people. Our failure to treat mental health issues like health issues, our failure to treat kids like kids, our failure to promote a rehabilitative approach to justice the first time someone comes in for a lower-level crime is precisely what drives this escalation, which ultimately leads to people being hurt and people being locked up for serious offenses.
I understand the position I’m running for; I’m running for Prosecutor. And if somebody murders somebody or commits rape, those are people that need to be separated from the community. I have tremendous issues with how we run our prisons and our jails, because I don’t think they are particularly rehabilitative, but I understand that those are the places that we currently use to separate someone who is a threat to the community. But the Prosecutor’s goal should be to never allow somebody to get to that point. Most of the crimes that come through the prosecutor’s office are not those types of violent offenses. What we should be doing is diverting people off the path to violent offenses — giving them resources, giving them help, partnering them with community organizations that can do so — and then we’re not going to have crime happening in the first place, which is what all of us want.
Mack: I am not impressed with the prosecutor’s office as it is structured. I’m not impressed with any office that abjectly denies the existence of systemic racism. Unfortunately, we see far too many of our former clients coming back into the system. That’s a tragic thing to see in Washtenaw County. As the fourth-richest county in the state, we have about a 70% recidivism rate. That means there’s a disconnect. I saw that disconnect all my years as public defender, and now as a private criminal defense attorney.
I am not impressed with any office that for a quarter-century has been in an incestuous love affair with law enforcement. I’m not impressed with any office that gives officers brownie points because of the time they’ve been with the department. They might say, “You’ve been handling cases for 10 years. We’ve handled a lot of cases together. Sure, we’ve got some questions about evidence here, but well, you’re a good guy or gal. It’s okay.” When I’m the prosecutor, we’re not going to be friends. We’re going to be partners. So don’t invite me to your little girl’s birthday party. Don’t invite me to the golf outings. I’m not coming.
I need effective, professional law enforcement to keep you safe. What I don’t need are officers who think their job is to dominate and occupy as opposed to protecting. I think we see that locally and nationally.
If a police officer harms one of my citizens outside the law, and I think they violated that person, I don’t care if there are 50 manuals authorizing that police conduct. I don’t care what the union says, I don’t care what the city council says. I care about [whether] I think you violated the law. If I feel that happened to one of my citizens, I will hold you accountable. Count on that.
Summarized candidate evaluations
Mack: Mack’s approach to his candidacy as prosecutor is to advocate for restorative justice, but his approach is not grounded in the actual principles or application of the model. He also repeatedly expresses a foundational belief in the need for and function of a punitive justice system.
Savit: Savit’s approach to his candidacy as prosecutor is to exercise the power of the prosecutor’s office, to the extent he deems possible, to challenge and reverse some harms of the criminal punishment system by shifting resources and power to communities and challenging certain aspects of current punitive approaches.
Slay: Slay’s approach to her candidacy as prosecutor is to work within the current system to make improvements that focus on diversion and restorative justice, while keeping all such programming within the criminal punishment system itself, and resisting committing to actions
that use the sway of the prosecutor’s office to challenge its current operation and function.
For more on programs referenced in this article:
Danielle Sered and Common Justice: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/03/opinion/violence-criminal-justice.html
Data-driven justice solutions in Michigan:
For more on the candidates, visit their websites:
Interviews conducted and article written by Laurie Wechter, Groundcover contributor