MaryAnn Sarosi, an attorney in Washtenaw County, sat at her desk one day in early April, combing through court files while preparing for a case. She eventually stumbled across data that caught her eye: criminal court cases revealing vast racial disparities in Washtenaw County’s legal system.
She said the task at hand — sifting through data to get statistics on racial inequities — seemed daunting at first, but nationwide revolts against police brutality reinforced her commitment to seeing it through.
“We lamented for a long time that these things weren’t transparent,” Sarosi said. “And then I realized, well, they are on the court records, on the court website. It would be tedious, but we could do these by hand, and we started doing by hand. And then after George Floyd was murdered, we realized, ‘Oh, we really got to do this. We really got to do this on a broader scale.’”
The numbers Sarosi found reveal large gaps in the treatment of different racial groups in the county’s criminal justice system. According to a report documenting her findings, prosecutors charge people of color more often than they do white people. The extent of the disparities varies depending on the felony category. For the felony category of suspended license, prosecutors charged people of color 22 percent more than white people. For the category of “Weapons – Felony Firearm,” people of color were charged 1,150 percent more often than white people, meaning POC faced charges at a rate 12.5 times that of their white counterparts.
In 10 of the 11 categories, prosecutors filed more charges against people of color, on average, than white people, ranging from a 12.8 percent to 62.9 percent difference. People of color also received more convictions per case, on average, than white people in 10 of the 11 categories.
The report was a team effort. After initially combing through the files with her colleague Rev. Joe Summers, Sarosi teamed up with Linda Rexer, retired executive director of the Michigan State Bar Foundation and Alma Wheeler-Smith, former representative in the Michigan State House of Representatives, to form Citizens for Racial Equality in Washtenaw — a group that collects and analyzes felony case records from the county court’s website to explore whether and to what extent racial disparities exist in the county’s charging and sentencing practices.
In August 2020, CREW published the report online detailing their findings after scraping through thousands of cases on the court’s website. The analysis covers more than 3,600 court cases in 11 felony categories — including capital and non-capital felonies — from 2013 to 2019.
According to the report, Washtenaw County prosecutors have broad discretion in deciding whether or not to charge someone with a crime and what kind of charges to bring.
Washtenaw County judges also have wide volition in determining the length of a sentence and choosing whether to accept a plea agreement or to sentence a person to probation, jail or prison.
“While we found racial disparities among individual judges, CREW did not find that the Washtenaw County Circuit Court, as a whole, demonstrated a pattern of racial disparity in its sentencing of our community members across all eight case categories we studied,” the report read. “That is not to say, however, we found no instances of disparity across the court.”
The data showed 44.1 percent of people of color convicted of homicide were sentenced to life in prison, compared to only 27.3 percent of white defendants. Additionally, most of the judges “contributed to a wide racial disparity in the average minimum/maximum sentence in armed robbery cases.”
The report also highlights 23 instances in which individual judges were found to issue harsher sentences or whose sentences showed racial disparities.
Thirteen of these 23 instances come from Judge Archie Brown. A statement issued from Brown’s office says the court’s criminal bench relies on pre-sentence investigation reports prepared by the state’s Probation Department, which analyzes sentencing guidelines, the offense in question and the defendant’s prior record “to assign a number score that gives judges in Michigan a baseline for what an appropriate sentence would be.”
“At the time of sentencing, the prosecutor and the defendant’s attorney have an opportunity to argue for changes in the scoring, raising or lowering the number score, which could impact the range of a defendant’s sentence,” the statement reads. “I understand there are racial inequities across the country and there are systemic problems in the legal system.”
“The CREW report is a place to start the conversation, however, the process will take time as the 22nd Judicial Circuit moves forward in reviewing the CREW data in relation to the sentencing guidelines and other statutorily required processes related to sentencing a defendant,” the statement continues.
Sarosi said she was surprised by the report, saying the results highlighted immense racial disparities in the Washtenaw County criminal justice system.
“We were really startled,” Sarosi said. “When we saw the chasms, the huge differences, it startled us. When we saw these deep disparities, not just in one area, but across the board, in the prosecutor's office and across the board with one judge, in particular, in the criminal court … when we just saw those patterns, that was the disturbing part … it woke us up.”
LSA senior Jaylen Bradley, president of the Black Undergraduate Law Association at the University of Michigan, said the prevalence of data on racial bias in judicial systems at national and local levels made the results of this report unsurprising.
“This is just a close-up of what’s actually hitting close to home here at the University campus,” Bradley said. “But I must say that when I saw those numbers, when I saw the report, nothing surprised me. It’s a difficult truth, but at this point, it’s like, what are we going to do about this data?”
CREW recommends several measures to address the disparities, including rigorous oversight by the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners, increasing data transparency by creating an online dashboard and a mandatory training program on implicit and explicit racial bias for all county employees at the courthouse.
The report also suggests county commissioners establish a citizens’ race equity commission to conduct statistical analysis similar to CREW’s report, in addition to engaging a neutral third party to determine whether the racial disparities evidenced in Brown’s sentencing decisions are rooted in any personal bias or systemic bias.
Bradley noted the importance of using data to draw conclusions about the existence of racial disparities and to use that information to offer recommendations for reform.
“Let it be known that the data is clear, the statistics are clear and the margin of error is low,” Bradley said. “This is accurate data that is happening right here in Washtenaw County that is so unfortunate, but it needed to be shown.”
Wheeler-Smith discussed her confidence in Eli Savit, the unopposed Democratic candidate for Washtenaw County prosecutor, and his commitment to using the report to generate change in the system. She said he and the courts across Washtenaw have been large supporters of the project.
“We’re hoping that they also look at going backward to understand what decisions have gotten us to this point so that those can be rectified,” Wheeler-Smith said. “And then going forward, measure how they are improving the balance in the criminal legal system. So I think those are the kinds of outcomes we’re hoping for.”
In an interview with The Daily, Savit commented on the need for concrete change using the report. He said he plans to partner with community organizations like CREW to pursue reform.
“I don’t think that we can just bury our head in the sand anymore and pretend like these inequities in our justice system don’t exist,” Savit said. “I welcome anybody to do analysis and to help us increase our transparency.”
Sarosi stressed the importance of judges, prosecutors and residents working together to promote racial equity in the legal system.
“Someone recently said to me, ‘This report makes us uncomfortable,’ but it should. It should make us all uncomfortable,” Sarosi said. “And whether you are in the prosecutor’s office or a judge or just a citizen … this is a time where we can all raise our hands and say, ‘Yep, I'm part of this, let’s correct it.’”
Daily Staff Reporters Julia Forrest and Sunskriti Paranjape can be reached at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown challenges at all of us — including The Michigan Daily — but that hasn’t stopped our staff. We’re committed to reporting on the issues that matter most to the community where we live, learn and work. Your donations keep our journalism free and independent. You can support our work here.
For a weekly roundup of the best stories from The Michigan Daily, sign up for our newsletter here.