In Conversation: Arianne Slay, candidate for Washtenaw County Prosecutor

Monday, June 22, 2020 - 5:28pm

Wayne County Prosecutor Candidate Arianne Slay

Wayne County Prosecutor Candidate Arianne Slay Buy this photo
Courtesy of Arianne Slay

Editor’s Note: The Michigan Daily does not officially endorse Arianne Slay for prosecutor. This story is one in a series of stories profiling the candidates for Washtenaw County Prosecutor. The Daily is continuing to reach out to other candidates for comments and interviews.

Arianne Slay has been a prosecutor for years, but it’s not winning convictions or putting people away that motivates her. Instead, Slay told The Daily her satisfaction comes from connecting offenders with appropriate rehabilitative programs to successfully channel them out of the criminal justice system.

“Seeing (a person I prosecuted) come out of the criminal justice system after a program that I pushed for and advocated for them as a prosecutor (really) means something to me,” Slay said.

Since Washtenaw County Prosecutor Brian Mackie is stepping down as Washtenaw County Prosecutor, Slay has set her sights on becoming the county’s next prosecutor. She is running against Eli Savit and Hugo Mack, both of which have platforms emphasizing criminal justice reform in advance of the Aug. 4 election. Slay said what sets her apart from her opponents is experience working as a prosecutor. 

In her nine years at the county prosecutor’s office, Slay said she has witnessed a rise in violent crime. She attributes this increase in crime to failures of the criminal justice system, and said the burden of eliminating crime also falls on the system itself.

“What we’re doing isn’t working,” Slay said. “We have so many institutional failures.”

She identifies this need for change in the system as her motivation to enter the race for Washtenaw County Prosecutor — that, and an objective to leverage the prosecutor’s position in particular to help accomplish those changes.

If elected, Slay said she would implement certain measures, including pre-arrest diversion and post-arrest deflection, right away. Both programs are intended to provide alternatives to incarceration within the criminal justice system. As a prosecutor with the city of Ann Arbor, Slay helped introduce these diversion and deflection programs at the prosecutor’s office.

“They provide a blueprint for what I want to do when I come back to the county, using principles of restorative justice,” Slay said.

Her long-term goals also take aim at systemic issues such as mass incarceration of Black men and the county’s flawed data systems, improvements to which she says will increase transparency regarding who and what they’re charging. Slay also said she hopes to rebuild trust between the criminal justice system and the community.

“Law enforcement has (no trust), and we have no reason to demand it from anybody at this time, so we’re going to have to build that,” Slay said. “And I believe that we do that by being engaged in the community.”

Police accountability and community relations

As a younger prosecutor, Slay said she followed the standard documentation and grievance-filing protocol when she witnessed possible police misconduct. Dissatisfied with the lack of response these were met with, she said she decided to “go to the source” and become a certified police trainer. She has since taught courses at the Washtenaw Police Academy, among other institutions.

“If we train them up right from the beginning, and we’re holding them accountable for the proper training and the best practices, then they can’t say they were never told,” Slay said.

At the same time, Slay added that she does not consider training alone sufficient to reform the system and that additional measures of accountability are in order.

“If you don’t hold them accountable for that training and for that culture, it was for naught,” Slay said. “So I also support making sure that we have policies and procedures in place — not just at the prosecutor’s office, but in every law enforcement agency in this county — that will hold people accountable for their actions.”

In the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing at the hands of a police officer in Minneapolis, some criminal justice reformers are calling for a change in the relationship between prosecutors and police departments. Slay said she sees opportunities for collaboration with law enforcement, and that the dynamic resembles a system of checks and balances. When it comes to alleged misconduct by police officers, however, Slay said she supports investigation by parties external to the county’s staff to avoid bias.

“When our police are doing wrong in that regard … we need to bring in an independent body to investigate,” Slay said.

Mental health and substance abuse reform

Due to a lack of treatment options, people experiencing mental health crises and substance abuse issues often end up in the criminal justice system instead of receiving proper treatment. To address this misuse of the criminal justice system, Slay alluded to a diversion program Washtenaw County law enforcement is working on implementing, called Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion. Washtenaw County Sheriff Jerry Clayton, who has endorsed Slay, is championing the effort.

“I don’t feel like people who are in our jail should be there unless they’re a danger, and we definitely shouldn't have people in there who are suffering from mental health issues,” Slay said. “I appreciate that Sheriff Clayton is willing to work on such a program and to spearhead it, but it takes collaboration with places like the prosecutor’s office and our other municipal prosecutors to make sure that that’s a reality.”

Slay also discussed increasing programming within the system for people suffering from these conditions.

“We can help make adjustments and make progression,” Slay said. “Sometimes it’s access to medical and healthcare. Somebody’s suffering from mental illness. They’re in crisis, they can't afford their medication. They’re not in the active treatment program, they don’t have peer support. Setting them on a path where they’re able to have that makes it less likely that we’re going to see them again.”

Prosecuting perpetrators of domestic violence and sexual assault

Advocates for criminal justice reform can face dilemmas in cases of sexual assault and domestic violence when objectives of offering restorative solutions for offenders and ensuring the safety of survivors can come into conflict. Slay, who said she has years of experience prosecuting such cases, commented on how she navigates this tension.

“So part of the reform movement — maybe the popularized reform movement — … often leaves out victims and survivors of crime,” Slay said. “(When) we’re talking about the criminal justice system, most people are thinking about adult and juvenile offenders or alleged offenders, and they don't think about the community member that may have been aggrieved by their actions. So in that reform I also support increased services for survivors, and making sure that they have the proper mental health tools and physical health tools so that they can help them on their recovery.”

In terms of programming for people charged with sexual assault and domestic violence, however, Slay said she opposes anger management classes.

“I can tell you that I do not support anger management at all in domestic violence cases,” Slay said. “I think that’s a pretty ill-conceived plan … we’re teaching somebody who has shown anger or force or violence towards another person, and 99 percent of the time, that’s not in public … Teaching someone how to suppress their anger temporarily, only to use it later — it’s not a best practice.”

Instead, Slay supports group therapy and other alternatives. 

In addition to her experience as a prosecutor, Slay identified one other factor that distinguishes her from her opponents: her lived experience. As a Black woman and mother, Slay said her real-life experiences, as well as those of her children, drive her desire for change.

“There were times when I would be in court and transport officers would bring in the defendant, and that was the only time I saw a Black folk,” Slay said. “There were some people in the courtroom that probably liked it. They weren’t bothered by it a bit. And so making sure that when we were making reforms that we are keeping this in mind, that we are co-producing these social and criminal justice reform, because … they can’t exist without each other.”

Daily Staff Reporter Julianna Morano can be reached at jucomora@umich.edu.