Eli Savit, Democratic nominee for Washtenaw County Prosecutor, spoke alongside members of the local criminal justice system about the need for reform at Ann Arbor’s Wheeler Park on Wednesday evening for the final stop on a Criminal-Justice Listening Tour.
Chief Public Defender Delphia Simpson, Chief Judge Carol Kuhnke of the Washtenaw Trial Court and Circuit Court Judge Patrick Conlin joined him for the discussion. The tour consisted of stops across Washtenaw County over the course of September, allowing community members to discuss their experiences and provide feedback regarding criminal justice reform.
Savit won the Democratic nomination for Washtenaw County Prosecutor in August with 52% of the vote against two primary challengers, Arianne Slay and Hugo Mack. He faces no Republican challenger in the upcoming general election and is currently planning for a transition into office, succeeding incumbent prosecutor Brian Mackie, who plans to retire.
Over the course of his campaign, Savit emphasized the importance of reforming Washtenaw County’s criminal justice and tackling racial and socioeconomic inequality. Now, Savit’s team is establishing working groups centered on reform while trying to involve community members in their planning.
“We wanted to do the listening tour early, so that the community’s feedback and community voices can inform our work,” Savit explained.
Issues relating to racial disparities in Washtenaw County’s criminal justice system, including how to hold prosecutors and judges accountable when implementing systemic changes, were central to the discussion.
A recent report published by Citizens for Racial Equality in Washtenaw found large racial disparities in the county’s criminal justice system. The report noted that prosecutors, who generally have wide discretion over what charges to bring against someone, charge people of color more frequently and harshly than they do white people.
Kuhnke and Savit discussed future plans to put the findings of the CREW report to use.
“We are working to replicate their findings by adding additional data that is not available to the public, and to be able to make data available to the public going forward,” Kuhnke said.
Kuhnke also described a plan to institute implicit bias training for judges and court staff, in addition to reestablishing the Criminal Justice Collaborative Council, a committee that would include members from all areas of criminal justice as well as citizens.
Savit detailed plans of his own to reduce bias in the prosecutor’s office.
“One of the things that I’ve been working on during this transition period is an independent third party evaluator to come in and identify the various points in the prosecutor’s office that we are seeing disparate treatment between people of color and white people,” Savit said.
The evaluator, Savit explained, would allow the prosecutor’s office to understand the causes of disparities outlined in the CREW report.
Savit said metrics measuring this disparate treatment could be made available online, with a data dashboard that allows constituents to see the office’s progress on equity and other measures. This would allow for residents to hold judges and prosecutors accountable.
Edward Dance, community outreach director for Savit’s transitional team, said this type of accountability aligned with the goals of the tour.
“The main idea behind the listening tours is for Eli to be accessible to the public, specifically to those who are really suffering from the criminal justice system,” Dance said. “He wants to encourage transparency, openness and a willingness for people to actually communicate what they’re going through so that we can rectify those problems and figure out ways to improve the prosecutor’s office and as a whole improve Washtenaw County’s government.”
At the conclusion of the tour, Savit said he was grateful that community members from across the county took time to share their stories and recommendations with him.
“I really am heartened by how many people showed up for these listening tours,” Savit said. “I’m heartened by how many people signed up at this busy time of year to, on a volunteer basis, assist us with the hard work of transition. I think it really speaks to the thirst for change that people have here, and I’m excited to get going.”
Daily News Contributor Priya Varanasi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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