Around 15 members of Students 4 Decarceration, a University of Michigan student group working to end inequities in the criminal legal system, attended a discussion featuring Washtenaw County Prosecutor Eli Savit and Chief Assistant Prosecutor Victoria Burton-Harris in the Central Campus Classroom Building Monday night. The discussion was the second installment of the group’s speaker series focused on the criminal legal system in Washtenaw County.
Savit began his speech by recognizing the role of prosecutors, including himself, in perpetuating incarceration and inequity caused by the criminal legal system.
“Prosecutors, through their decisions, have been as responsible — and perhaps more responsible than any other actor — for the inequities that we’ve seen in our criminal legal system for the cascading consequences of the war on drugs and mass incarceration,” Savit said. “So I want to acknowledge that and acknowledge that in our current position, we do work in a system that continues to be carceral.”
Savit also shared his observations of the consequences individuals have faced from interacting with the criminal system. He described how felony convictions remain on people’s records and keep them from job opportunities, securing housing, continuing education before discussing his aims to ensure they can undergo the process of reentry and lead a life without the harmful label of “criminal.”
“What (the Washtenaw County Prosecutor’s Office is) going to work to do, in large part, is to really minimize — from the inside of the system — the harm that the criminal legal system causes,” Savit said.
Restorative justice refers to focusing on the needs of those who are harmed, both on an individual and community level, as well as those who cause harm. Savit shared his hopes to implement a restorative justice approach through his work at the prosecutor’s office, and his hopes for what that can do in the community.
“We (can) make our community safer and healthier,” Savit said. “We (can) find a different way to address (crime), other than the brutality and the lasting stigma that comes along with jail, prison, even probation.”
Burton-Harris began her speech by explaining how herinterest in historical trends in policing and incarceration motivated her to work in law enforcement.
“I wanted to understand how we got to this place legally with the different laws that we have set up from post-slavery, Jim Crow Black Codes,” Burton-Harris said.
Echoing Savit’s emphasis on restorative justice, Burton-Harris said she feels the Prosecutor’s Office should focus on helping those who have caused harm understand the impacts of their actions to prevent further harm in the future.
“(Perpetrators) have to listen to how they impacted their family, your spouse, their children,” Harris said. “And it’s not even about the punishment. It’s about the person that you hurt right in front of you that you’re listening to.”
In an interview with The Michigan Daily after the event, LSA senior Ilana Kaplan, president of Students 4 Decarceration, said the purpose of the event was to educate their members on the impacts of incarceration in the context of real-world experiences.
“Something we do as Students 4 Decarceration is we bring in speakers to hear multiple perspectives about the criminal legal system,” Kaplan said. “It’s a very complex issue and education is one of our main pillars, understanding that not everyone has the same background and understanding these issues, and also centering the voices and identities of those in our community who are doing this work and who are also being affected by this work.”
Kaplan encouraged the campus community to educate themselves about the impacts of the carceral system and be open-minded to learning from one another.
“Valuing the dignity of a person is so important and going out of your way to do the research, and not rely on people to share about their identities or events that have happened to them,” Kaplan said. “At the end of the day, what we care about most is creating a safe and just world and that doesn’t need to be locking people up, it just needs to be sitting together at a table and learning from one another.”
Daily Staff Reporter Sneha Dhandapani can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.