Eli Savit sworn in as new Washtenaw County Prosecutor

Saturday, January 2, 2021 - 4:06pm

Newly elected Washtenaw County Prosecuting Attorney Eli Savit was sworn into office Saturday afternoon.

Newly elected Washtenaw County Prosecuting Attorney Eli Savit was sworn into office Saturday afternoon. Buy this photo
Courtesy of Sarah Payne

Eli Savit, University of Michigan Law School alum, was sworn in Saturday afternoon by Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Bridget Mary McCormack as the new Washtenaw County prosecutor. Victoria Burton-Harris, Savit’s chief assistant, was also sworn in at the ceremony, which was held in the University’s Law Quadrangle. 

Savit won the August primary election against Democratic challengers Arienne Slay and Hugo Mack, receiving 52% of the vote, and went on to win in an uncontested race in the November general election. Former prosecutor Brian Mackie served for over 28 years in the position and officially retired on Friday.

Savit was also a former member of Detroit’s senior legal counsel and clerk for the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Sandra Day O’Connor. Savit said he is not a prosecutor by training, but instead an educator. He said his experience as a former public school teacher in special education and history in conjunction with his expertise in law make him well-suited for the position. 

Throughout the ceremony, which was livestreamed on YouTube, Savit emphasized that his campaign was a community effort to improve equity for all. 

“This didn't start in the halls of power or in the traditional legal establishment,” Savit said. “It started with activists around kitchen tables and in living rooms.” 

During his campaign, Savit emphasized the importance of addressing issues of racial and socioeconomic inequity in Washtenaw County. He committed to prioritizing the prosecution of violent crimes and corporate criminals, while supporting courts that specialize in aiding veterans or those struggling with mental health. 

Burton-Harris, Wayne State University Law School alum and longtime attorney for criminal and family law, said their community-led efforts will be the driving force behind the policies and decisions made for the county. 

“Eli and I have spent the last year plus sitting with people across our communities and learning what they need and want,” Burton-Harris said. “People want restorative justice, they want to get to the reason behind why people harmed them, so that they can eliminate that harm and it doesn't happen to them again.” 

Burton-Harris said their goal is to build a system that works for everyone in Washtenaw County by prioritizing rehabilitation and restoration of the justice system. 

“We all deserve mercy, compassion, justice and equal treatment under the law,” Burton-Harris said.  

On Friday, his first day in office, Savit rescinded the zero-tolerance policies for criminal acts put in place by the previous administration. Some of these policies barred prosecuting attorneys from accepting plea bargains, preventing them from exchanging a lesser sentence for a guilty plea. According to a Friday press release, the now-rescinded policies made it difficult for defendants to take part in substance-use treatment or rehabilitation options instead of incarceration and prevented young defendants from earning a chance to clear their record.

In the release, the prosecutor’s office detailed the specifics of the new policy, which said each case should be treated with the “individual attention it deserves.” 

“Every criminal case involves a unique human story,” the press release reads. “No two cases are exactly alike, nor is the factual background that brought a person within the criminal justice system’s orbit … A one-sized-fits-all approach to justice — divorced from the factual circumstances of each unique case — is not justice at all.”

At the swearing-in ceremony, Savit also discussed several new policies that he plans to implement in the coming days, including a long-time campaign promise of ending cash bail. Ending cash bail is often viewed as a way to avoid further criminalizing those of a lower socioeconomic status who cannot afford to bail themselves out of jail.

“One-size-fits-all justice is not justice at all,” Savit said. “And one-size-fits-all justice will no longer be dispensed by your prosecutor's office.”

In a Jan. 4 press release, Savit announced that the Prosecutor's Office will no longer seek cash bail for all cases, making Washtenaw County the first jurisdiction in Michigan to do so. The new policy requires prosecutors to make specific and individualized assessments about the dangerousness and flight risk of the defendant, and to find appropriate non-monetary conditions that protect public safety. 

“To be clear,” Savit said in the press release. “our policy still allows for the detention of people who pose an imminent threat to the community. Our office will never consent to pretrial release unless we are satisfied that conditions are in place to ensure public safety. But we will no longer perpetuate a system of wealth-based detention.”

The policy also addresses how the cash bail system perpetuates the historical prevelance of discrimination and the racial wealth gap throughout the country because Americans who lack wealth in the United States are more disproportionately likely to be Black.

“I pledged during the campaign that we would not be seeking cash bail, and I’m proud to make good on that promise today,” Savit said in the press release. “Cash bail is inherently inequitable and unjust. The size of a person’s bank account should never determine their freedom.”

Savit thanked his campaign staff and transition teams, including Business junior Maddie Borman and LSA sophomore Shruti Lakshmanan, who serve as Savit’s finance intern and transition manager respectively. The prosecutor expressed his appreciation for his staff, who are mostly under the age of 25, and said he was excited about the next generation’s ability to create change. 

“This new generation is coming,” Savit said. “They're committed, they're passionate, they're going to change the future. Anybody that sleeps on the younger generation does so at their (own) peril.” 

Lakshmanan also spoke at the event, calling Savit and Burton-Harris “people prosecutors” and “true visionaries.”

“I'm so proud that you guys will both be leading the charge here in Washtenaw (County) for the next four years,” Lakshmanan said. 

Daily Staff Reporter Sarah Payne can be reached at paynesm@umich.edu

Update: The article has been updated to reflect Eli Savit’s new Jan. 4 policy to eliminate the use of cash bail.


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