Washtenaw County Prosecutor introduces joint project with U-M to identify racial bias in prosecution

Wednesday, January 20, 2021 - 3:01pm

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Alec Cohen/Daily

In an effort to increase transparency in prosecution, new Washtenaw County prosecutor Eli Savit announced the creation of the Prosecutor Transparency Project on Jan. 5 to examine racial bias in the prosecutor’s office. The project is a collaboration between the prosecutor’s office, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan and a research team from the University of Michigan Law School.

The project uses collected data to “ensure equitable treatment” in the prosecutorial system, according to a Jan. 5 press release. The results of the project will be made available to the public as they are completed.

In an interview with The Daily, Savit said he has planned to address racial injustice within the prosecutor’s office since he won his primary election in August. Savit said surface-level data has shown the existence of racial inequality in the justice system, and he is interested in more closely examining data to see where those disparities arise.

“We need to look racial inequity squarely in the eye,” Savit said. “I am a firm believer that if there's going to be consequences imposed as a result of the criminal legal system … (it) should be because of what you did, not because of who you are.” 

The project was born out of demands from Citizens for Racial Equity in Washtenaw, an organization dedicated to fighting inequality within the county. In August 2020, CREW published a report on findings from thousands of cases between 2013 to 2019 that highlighted racial bias in the Washtenaw County criminal justice system. 

According to the report, prosecutors charged people of color 22% more often than white people for the felony category of a suspended license. People of color also received more convictions per case, on average, than white people in the 10 of 11 felony categories the study examined. 

In his first weeks in office, Savit announced several new policies — including the discontinuation of cash bail and zero-tolerance policies in policing — which were core aspects of his campaign platform last year. Many of the policies Savit rescinded disproportionately criminalized Black Americans and those of a lower socioeconomic status.

“We know systemic racism exists in all facets of society, and the Prosecutor’s Office is no exception,” Savit said in the Jan. 5 press release. “This partnership will go a long way towards helping inform how we make decisions and ensuring that justice is dispensed in an unbiased manner moving forward.”

The Prosecutor Transparency Project will consist of three phases. First, the Law School research team will collect a quantitative analysis of the decisions made by the prosecutor’s office. The second phase will compare legal cases with similar key facts for white people and people of color. During the final phase, the prosecutor’s office will identify metrics to ensure equitable treatment and display these results on the prosecutor’s website.

J.J. Prescott, a Law School professor and criminal justice reform expert, will lead the research team at the University. Prescott said it is rare for prosecutors to share their case files with the public, making this data-driven investigation particularly exciting.

“There are lots of theories about where and why these disparities may come about in prosecutorial decision-making processes and structure,” Prescott said. “And I'm excited to get into that, (to) actually be able to figure it out as a researcher by designing things that help us answer those questions.”

Prescott said the team will use quantitative data and categorical analyses to examine potential inequities across racial groups. 

“(Our goal) is to understand and identify the sources of disparities, and then after that there'll be a deep dive into the details and specific details of cases to say ‘Okay, well quantitatively this is something we sense that we don't have an explanation for,’” Prescott said.

Shelli Weisberg, the political director of the ACLU of Michigan, said she is proud to fund the Prosecutor Transparency Project as part of the ACLU’s commitment to dismantle systemic racism in the criminal justice system through their Smart Justice campaign, a multi-year project that aims to reduce the prison population nationwide.

“We believe prosecutors are really the gatekeepers to a fair, legal criminal justice system,” Weisberg said. “There is a real desire from all stakeholders in addressing the problems of the criminal legal system that have just flooded our jails and prisons with people who don't need to be there, (who have) incredibly long sentences, young people in prison forever and for ridiculous crimes.”

Savit said this project is the first of its kind in Michigan and hopes it will initiate real change in Washtenaw County’s prosecutorial system.

“I'm tremendously excited about this project,” Savit said. “Fundamentally what I'm hoping to see is where people are being treated differently because of their race for similar conduct. To my mind, that's absolutely unacceptable. We’re going to be setting the standard for looking at racial inequities in the justice system.”

Education junior Carson Krome, a member of the Prison Creative Arts Project, wrote in an email to The Daily the project is a major step forward in achieving equity within the county’s criminal justice system.

“The fact that our Prosecutor’s Office is working to delve into the vast racial disparities in our prison systems is a wonderful sign of hope as our community members have faced the ramifications of this systematic injustice,” Krome wrote. “These actions taking place after decades of “tough on crime” politicians taking the ‘justice’ out of our criminal justice system.”

Daily Staff Reporter Varsha Vedapudi can be reached at varshakv@umich.edu


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