About 100 Washtenaw County residents attended a debate on Saturday at the Learning Resource Center on Washtenaw Avenue between the three Democratic candidates in the 2020 election for the position of Washtenaw County prosecutor. 

The three candidates are Hugo Mack, a former public defender and now private practice defense attorney; Eli Savit, a former eighth grade history teacher and current senior legal counsel at the city of Detroit; and Arianne Slay, a prosecutor currently working for the city of Ann Arbor and who previously worked for nine years in the county prosecutor’s office.

In Savit’s opening statement, he stated what he believes are the three largest issues with the current prosecutor’s office: not addressing the root cause of crime, severe racial and socioeconomic inequity and problems of transparency and accountability.

“The truth of the matter is, I have seen in this prosecutor’s office a reflection of the criminal justice policies that have failed this country over the past several decades,” Savit said. “It is a reflection of our national era of mass-incarceration, and I am running, and I got in this race, to change that.”

Mack argued that what is missing right now in the office is being “first and foremost a minister of justice.” He said he supports an honest, frank discussion about race, policing and policy.

“The role of the prosecutor’s office is not to be a friend of the police,” Mack said. “That is wrong. The role of prosecutor attorney’s office is to be a partner with the police for justice and integrity.”

The debate covered topics of restorative justice, the relationship between the public defender’s office and the prosecutor’s office, cash bail and trust between the prosecutor’s office and the Black community. 

Slay repeatedly spoke about restructuring the office to allow for more time to be spent on individual cases and sentencing alternatives for those struggling with mental health and substance abuse in order to reduce recidivism.

“One of the things that they’re not currently doing, which I believe would be innovative, is to … have a diversion program for adults for those who are in crisis from mental health and those who are in crisis for substance abuse,” Slay said. “It’s to pull their charged cases in advance so that we don’t actually charge them — that they’re not acquiring a record — and diverting them out of the criminal justice system. Meaning, if they complete their treatment and their community follow-up that … it’s not resulting in a criminal conviction.”

The conversation turned to discuss Mack’s criminal record and ten years in prison for a criminal sexual conduct conviction in 1994. According to MLive, Mack was convicted in a 1993 jury trial for sexually assaulting a woman, though he claims his innocence. He remains on Michigan’s sex offender registry. Mack said his qualifications as an experienced lawyer are more important to consider than the conviction.

“My qualifications are my experience as an attorney,” Mack said. “In terms of my experience in the penitentiary, let’s be very honest about that. Do I state that it qualifies me for service? I don’t know if it qualifies me for service, but two things: It totally should not disqualify me from service, and it certainly adds a dimension to a prosecutor who knows what it’s like. A prosecutor who knows the system not merely from the outside-in but from the inside-out.”

Mack argued that electing him to be the next County Prosecutor would be an invaluable sign of making amends between the African-American community and the government.

“When they know that the citizens, the voters, in Washtenaw County are openhearted enough to judge a person by their qualifications currently and not their past, that sends a vast message to everyone,” Mack said.

Savit was open about his qualifications for the position as well despite his lack of experience as a prosecutor. 

“I believe I’m uniquely qualified to reform the office of prosecutor attorney,” Savit said. “I am not a career prosecutor; I did not come up through the current system. I am someone that is coming in from the outside, and I am committed to reform.” 

Slay responded that, while the energy is refreshing, experience is invaluable to the office.

“This is not one of those jobs that you can walk into and say, ‘I will lead by systems, I will lead by governing.’ You have to know how to lead them,” Slay said. “I’m not going to tell you anything to make you just feel good. I will tell you what’s lawful, and I will tell you what is correct to do under the court rule, and I am going to follow those to a tenet. But unless you practice in those — unless you have been practicing in those — you can’t just walk into it. It’s not something that you read, it’s something that I’ve been living for years.”

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