Washtenaw County Prosecutor makes sweeping changes during first two weeks in office

Friday, January 15, 2021 - 5:09pm

Washtenaw County Prosecutor Eli Savit makes several changes during his first two weeks in office.

Washtenaw County Prosecutor Eli Savit makes several changes during his first two weeks in office. Buy this photo
Alec Cohen/Daily

Since taking office on Jan. 1, Washtenaw County Prosecutor Eli Savit has implemented multiple changes to the prosecutor’s office, including rescinding zero-tolerance policies, reforming the cash bail system and prioritizing treatment and rehabilitation — all promises made throughout his campaign. 

Savit’s run for office was fueled by his experiences observing racial and socioeconomic inequities present in the justice system. His campaign began as a collaborative effort with local activists and promised reforms for the cash bail system and support for specialized courts that promote rehabilitation and prioritize mental health issues. 

Zero-tolerance policies rescinded from Prosecutor’s Office

On the morning of Savit’s first day in office — one day before his swearing-in ceremony — the new prosecutor announced he is rescinding zero-tolerance policies because these policies hinder the ability of prosecutors to treat each case with an individualized assessment.  

According to the policy directive, zero-tolerance policies subject anyone involved in certain conduct to the same sanctions, regardless of the factual background surrounding the situation. Savit’s new directive will rescind these policies, including those that prohibit assistant prosecuting attorneys from offering certain plea deals, diversion to problem-solving courts and deferment of sentencing options.

“I said repeatedly during my campaign that my first act as Prosecutor would be to eliminate ‘zero-tolerance policies,’ and we’ve done that today,” Savit said in a Jan. 1 press release. “Everyone involved in the justice system—crime survivors, defendants, witnesses, and families—deserves to have their unique case treated with the care that it deserves. That is how the Prosecutor’s Office will proceed moving forward.”

Cash bail directives eliminated 

On Jan. 4, Savit announced the prosecutor’s office will no longer use cash bail in any case. He explained how the cash bail system is often viewed as perpetuating racial and wealth inequities, as it relies on an individual’s ability to pay off bail. 

Under a cash bail system, poorer people—even those who are accused of relatively minor crimes—are forced to sit in jail for days, weeks, or years,” Savit wrote in a Jan. 4 press release.

While no other counties in Michigan have eliminated the cash bail system, Washington, D.C. and New Jersey have. Savit called the cash bail system biased and expressed pride in ridding Washtenaw County of it.

“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.”

Officer-involved violence and restricting and obstructing charges

Savit’s administration released two new policies on Jan. 8 related to cases involving citizen-police interactions. The first requires the Prosecutor’s Office to seek an independent special prosecutor for cases against police officers who engaged in violence against residents. The second policy requires prosecutors to review all evidence — including video recordings — before charging civilians for “resisting and obstructing” police officers.

The policy highlights a high-profile 2014 case in which Aura Rosser, a 40-year old Black woman, was shot and killed by an Ann Arbor police officer at her boyfriend’s home. Former Washtenaw County prosecutor Brian Mackie determined that the officer was acting in self defense and therefore did not criminally charge the officer. The incident and the following report from Mackie incited public outcry from community members who felt that justice was not served

Trische’ Duckworth, executive director of Survivors Speak, a nonprofit committed to amplifying voices and topics related to social injustice, said the Prosecutor’s Office is an office for the people. She said she believes this narrative has been neglected before but hopes Savit’s administration will work to establish this fundamental purpose. 

“This office understands racial inequities, they understand how that particular office has abused people of color by way of enormous sentencing, plea deals and things of that nature, up to misconduct,” Duckworth said. “These individuals know what’s gone on, and they are being transparent about it and doing things and putting remedies in place to combat the injustices of that office.”

Duckworth said she understands there is a need for an outside prosecutor to aid in cases related to officer-involved violence, but said she also believes justice can be served more readily in cases of blatant misconduct by police officers by having the Prosecutor’s Office move the charge themselves.

“We are in total alignment with what’s going on in the prosecutor’s office,” Duckworth said. “And when we are not, we will rise to the occasion to challenge just like we would any other person that is in office that the people have elected. It’s a level of accountability that's coming for right now, and the people are going to not just vote, we're going to hold people accountable the entire time they’re in office.”

Prosecutor’s office to no longer charge marijuana or entheogenic plant cases

Savit announced on Jan. 12 that he will no longer be prosecuting individuals for the use of marijuana or naturally occurring psychedelics. The policy supports Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s expungement bill which helps previously incarcerated people re-enter society and removes marijuana offenses if they occured after the drug became recreationally legal. Savit said in a press release he believes marijuana and entheogenic drugs should not be on people’s criminal record.

“The costs of cannabis criminalization moreover, have not been borne equally,” Savit said in a Jan. 12 press release. “Instead, those costs have been borne disproportionately by Black and indegenous people of color.” 

Savit’s policy follows a resolution passed by the Ann Arbor City Council to decriminalize the use of entheogenic plants on Sept. 4. The resolution declares arresting individuals for using entheogenic plants as “the lowest priority for the city of Ann Arbor,” and Savit expressed his agreement given psychedelics’ lack of serious health effects.

“Naturally occuring entheogenic plants are not generally addictive, nor do they present a significant risk of a fatal overdose,” Savit said in the same press release. “Entheogenic plants, moreover are not associated with violent behavior.”

In an interview with The Daily, Savit said this policy was designed by partnering with health care workers and law enforcement officers to determine its effect on other industries. Entheogenic plants pose a significantly lower threat to the user’s health and well-being than other drugs such as narcotics or stimulants, Savit said. 

“I worked closely with law enforcement and health care workers to work on the policy,” Savit said. “I haven’t talked with a single police officer who thinks that (not charging for marijuana) will make their job harder or will negatively impact the community.” 

Ann Arbor resident Cidney Bundon told The Michigan Daily she believes Savit’s policy is a step in the right direction to end the war on drugs.

“I honestly believe more good will come from this than bad,” Bundon said. “Police will have time to focus on other more violent crimes. Rates of unjust arrest will hopefully go down and as a result, less people will have felonies or marks on their records. People won’t fear they will be in trouble when deciding to experiment with these substances at home. Removing these charges will hopefully result in less people being incarcerated.”

Bundon said she hopes to see an open-minded approach to entheogenic drugs in the future, potentially to be used to help mental health problems. She said a decrease in the amount of people in jail for drugs and a reform on the way drugs are policed would lead to more productive uses of public resources.

“Billions are being spent yearly to ‘fight the war on drugs’ when that money could be spent in so many different, better ways than putting people in our system and fining them,” Bundon said. “The war on drugs failed, and it’s now up to us to fix the mess it has created.” 

Charges against unauthorized use of buprenorphine

Savit’s administration released a new policy on Jan. 13 to no longer charge unauthorized use of buprenorphine, a partial opioid agonist that has been widely prescribed for those recovering from opioid addiction. Buprenorphine is technically an opioid, but its effects on the opioid receptors in the brain are much less than the effects of more potent opioids like heroin or fentanyl. Savit explained his policy will have an overall net positive impact on public health.   

“When we charge buprenorphine-related cases, we make it more likely that people in recovery will end up using drugs like heroin or fentanyl,” Savit said in the Jan. 13 press release. “The data from other communities clearly bears this out. Declining to prosecute buprenorphine is associated with a significant reduction in overdose deaths. That’s the outcome we all should want.”

In December 2019, the state of Michigan removed the requirement for physicians to obtain prior authorization before prescribing buprenorphine. In doing so, the state labeled the medication as “the gold standard for treating individuals with opioid use disorder.”

Savit’s policy also notes that cases should still be charged against “large-scale manufacturers or distributors of buprenorphine who are engaged in the black-market sale of buprenorphine for profit,” as these forms of obtaining buprenorphine may prevent those on a path towards long-term recovery.

No longer prosecuting consensual sex work charges

Savit’s latest policy, announced on Jan. 14, will immediately halt charges related to consensual sex work in Washtenaw County. The office will focus more on prosecuting sex-work adjacent crimes such as human trafficking, sexual and physical assault and crimes against children, according to the policy directive

The policy cites research showing that the criminalization of sex work places greater risk for sex workers to encounter sex work-adjacent harm. As such, sex workers are less likely to report any instances of exploitation.

“We are laser-focused on crime that harms our community, and on protecting public safety,” Savit said in a Jan. 14 press release. “Today’s policy makes it far more likely that sex workers will feel comfortable reporting serious crime, and that they will be able to work in conditions that protect their safety and public health.”

Daily News Editor Kristina Zheng can be reached at krizheng@umich.edu. Daily Staff Reporter Shannon Stocking can be reached at sstockin@umich.edu.  


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