Washtenaw County prosecutor candidates discuss priorities, differences

Sunday, February 9, 2020 - 7:11pm

County Prosecutor candidate Eli Savit presents his platform at the Arrowwood Community Center Sunday afternoon.

County Prosecutor candidate Eli Savit presents his platform at the Arrowwood Community Center Sunday afternoon. Buy this photo
Becca Mahon/Daily

Three candidates for Washtenaw County prosecutor spoke to a group of about 60 community members regarding the upcoming election for county prosecutor at the Arrowwood Community Center in Ann Arbor on Sunday afternoon.

Arrowwood Democratic Party hosted the event, which was moderated by Ann Arbor City Councilmembers Anne Bannister, D-Ward 1, and Jeff Hayner, D-Ward 1. 

The candidates — Arianne Slay, Hugo Mack and Eli Savit — emphasized a need for change to the current local prosecution system and proposed unique plans to solve criminal justice problems facing Washtenaw County. 

Slay spoke first about her platform, arguing that Washtenaw County is at a crucial moment and underscoring the need to reform the criminal justice system. 

“The criminal justice system of Washtenaw County is at a point of catastrophic institutional failure,” Slay said. “And that’s a big statement. We have policies in place in our current administration at the prosecutor’s office that have reinforced these institutional harms. We have a lack of flexibility, we have a lack of looking at our community in the same respect that we have not just humans on the prosecution side with our victims but we have humans on the other side, we have lost compassion and empathy and I will bring that change back.” 

Slay asked attendees to back her campaign, emphasizing the changes she would implement if elected. 

“I’m not just asking for your support today, I’m asking for your support indefinitely to be committed to this cause and please, by all stretches of the imagination, vote,” Slay said.  

Hugo Mack, a defense attorney based in Ypsilanti, then discussed what he hopes to bring as Washtenaw County’s next prosecutor. 

“I am a law enforcement officer; I make law enforcement first, and reform second,” Mack said. “And if that costs me the election then so be it, but know where I’m coming from. I believe that incarceration should be the final option, not the first choice.” 

Mack worked for the Washtenaw County Public Defender after graduating from law school, working his way up to becoming chief assistant public defender. He was fired from that position during an investigation into allegations that he raped a woman he was having an affair with. He was charged for the crime several months later in 1992 and was convicted in 1993. He was sent to prison and placed on Michigan’s sex offender registry, but maintains his innocence.

His law license was reinstated in 2010 and Mack returned to practicing law.

During the panel, Mack emphasized the importance of trust and accountability within the justice system, but added that this will not make him soft on crime. 

“I want you to be able to go out of your house knowing that your prosecutor cares about you,” Mack said. “But let me make something clear; if a person has harmed you and I think the penitentiary is the best place to atone for that then I have no problem recommending it because while I do oppose mass incarceration, there is a place for holding people accountable for their wrongdoing.”

Mack called for separation between prosecutors and police officers.

“Everything that I tell you between now and the end of this election is based on your public safety,” Mack said. “The prosecutors and the police are not supposed to be friends, they are supposed to be partners. Friends cover for each other, they make excuses for each other.”

Lastly, Eli Savit, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School, spoke about his plans to reform the justice system locally by relying on his experiences in secondary education and as a clerk for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

“I am not a prosecutor, I did not come up through this system, I have not spent my career putting people behind bars,” Savit said. “But I saw in my home community that I love a reflection of the national policies of mass incarceration, and I am running forthright to turn the page on those policies.”

Savit called on law enforcement to address the root causes of these problems. 

“I believe that reform and public safety go hand in hand because if we address the root cause of criminal behavior, at the outset, we do not see people shuffle through the jail and the prison system, oftentimes their behavior escalating and often putting us all at risk,” Savit said.

Savit has a 17-point plan for reform of this system and highlighted several of these points to the voters in attendance. 

“At every opportunity, we need to promote rehabilitation and treatment over incarceration,” Savit said. “Here in Washtenaw County, we have close to a 70 percent recidivism rate, which means nearly seven out of 10 times, people are going into jail and prison and they are coming right back out and they are continuing to commit crimes because we do not address that root cause; the addiction issues, the mental health issues, the trauma that is causing them to re-offend.” 

Community member Anna Burtt attended the event and said she is hopeful about change in the local justice system this year. Burtt said she was displeased with the policies of the current Washtenaw County prosecutor, Brian Mackie, who was first elected in 1992 and decided not to seek re-election in 2020. 

“I’m just very interested in seeing change in Washtenaw County, definitely not happy with the current prosecutor and the current system and how they do things,” Burtt said. “They each had some very good points specifically regarding addressing racial inequality, which I think is a very important factor.”

Community member Peggy Burtt also commented on the town hall and the benefits of hearing directly from the candidates. 

“I just want to be an informed voter,” Burtt said. “It’s just good to hear one-on-one what they have to say, not just to read about it, but to honestly hear what they have to say and their views. You can see a little more of their passion behind different things, which is good.”

Sarah Payne can be reached at paynesm@umich.edu