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Eli Savit is seeking to bring large structural reforms to the Washtenaw County Prosecutor’s office as his campaign capitalizes on the enthusiasm of young voters.
A Washtenaw County native, Savit grew up in Ann Arbor and graduated from Pioneer High School in 2001. He currently lives in Ann Arbor and is the senior legal counsel for the City of Detroit.
From middle school history teacher to Supreme Court lawyer
Savit started his career as a public school teacher after graduating from Kalamazoo College. He taught special education and general education in 8th grade U.S. history at a troubled middle school in New York City, after which he returned to Ann Arbor to attend the University of Michigan.
Savit started his legal career in private practice, where he represented “everybody from folks that were in immigration proceedings..., criminal defendants, victims of domestic violence, spousal abuse, victims of consumer fraud, kids with disabilities that were seeking to vindicate their right to an education.”
He furthered his career in law by working for two federal judges, and then by becoming an appellate and Supreme Court lawyer. Eventually, Savit was tapped to serve as a clerk for Justices Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Sandra Day O’Connor.
After working in Washington D.C. for the Supreme Court, Savit decided to return to Washtenaw County, where he settled down in Ann Arbor and accepted a position as senior legal counsel to the City of Detroit.
Savit continues his work for Detroit where he oversees the public interest litigation program. He says his position involves “going after a lot of bad actors that have harmed the Detroit community,” such as “banks and slum lords and land speculators who were maintaining homes and conditions that lead to lead poisoning in Detroit kids,” according to Savit.
Savit was also involved in Detroit’s right-to-literacy lawsuit against the state of Michigan, in which a settlement was reached for the state to pay $94 million to Detroit for future literacy funding. Savit noted that it was “the first case ever in U.S. history to have a court decision which recognized that there is a fundamental right to literacy in the U.S. constitution.”
Savit is also an environmental lawyer, and he currently serves as legal counsel to Puerto Rico, and the states of New Jersey and Maryland in environmental lawsuits against companies such as Exonn and Shell. He is also a pro-bono attorney with the ACLU of Michigan, where he works on various civil rights cases.
Taking a civil rights approach to the county prosecutor’s office
One of Savit’s primary campaign priorities is to take on racial inequities within the justice system in Washtenaw County.
Savit believes that because county prosecutors have so much discretion in who to charge and what to charge them with, that it’s vital to elect individuals with a “civil rights mindset.”
Savit says if elected, he wants to hire a third-party evaluator to give an objective report on the issues of the county’s prosecutor’s office as it relates to racial inequality.
“The current prosecutor's office's position on racial equity has basically been to stick their heads in the sand and pretend a problem doesn't exist. We need to change that...” Savit said.
Savit says he wants an independent evaluator to investigate everything from arrests to plea bargaining conduct, to charging decisions and sentencing decisions, where racial equality issues seem to come up often.
It’s important to find an unbiased source to do the evaluation though, Savit explained, because anyone with a defensive attitude towards the prosecutor’s office will block the path toward concrete steps being taken to solve the problems of racial inequalities in the justice system.
Savit argued that his experience as a civil rights lawyer makes him uniquely positioned to tackle these issues. He said that this will be a primary focus of his if elected.
“The only thing that is preventing us from doing it is the lack of a will, and that's gonna change when I am prosecutor,” Savit said.
A campaign for big structural change in the Washtenaw County justice system
Savit is positioning himself as a progressive that will bring big changes to the criminal justice system in Washtenaw County. He is endorsed by local, state, and national progressive leaders such as Sen. Bernie Sanders, former Michigan gubernatorial candidate Abdul El-Sayed, state Sen. Jeff Irwin, and Ypsilanti city councilwoman Annie Sommerville.
Savit also boasts the endorsements of three previous chairs of the Michigan Democratic Party, as well as a large list of local elected officials.
Savit sees himself as an outsider with the right coalition to tackle large systemic changes to the criminal justice system in Washtenaw County. He says the support of so many community activists, leaders, elected officials, young voters, and labor unions gives him the tools to bring this change.
“I did not start my campaign the traditional way; I didn't start my campaign by asking the current prosecutor for permission, or by trying to show our support among current law enforcement prosecutorial establishment . . .”
“I sat with activists, with community leaders that were seeking change in the justice system. And we sat together and we talked together and we came up, together, with a plan for how we could win and take back the prosecutor's office and enact real change that will help communities,” Savit said.
Cash bail is a major campaign issue for Savit, and he says that he will not use it if elected as prosecutor. He says that anyone who poses a danger to the public or those at risk of skipping trial will still be held pending trial, but that “justice won’t depend on the size of one’s bank account.”
Savit has also taken a strong stance against plea bargaining, the process by which a defendant and prosecutor work out a deal for the defendant to plead guilty for a lesser charge, in return for getting a more lenient sentence.
“I think plea bargaining has its place in the criminal justice system, [but] we should not be threatening charges that are not in the interest of justice or that you know the prosecutor can't prove [later in] a trial, simply to gain leverage over a defendant in plea bargaining negotiations and force them to plead guilty,” Savit said.
Savit said he will put an end to “coercive plea bargaining”, and his website says that he will “ensure that plea bargaining in the Prosecutor’s Office is conducted fairly.”
Savit also wants to divert people away from the justice system by providing more rehabilitative and treatment services, but he recognizes that the prosecutor’s office can’t bring that change by itself. Savit says his deep connections to community activists and leaders will be an advantage in trying to make this change a reality.
“That's why those connections are so important because it's gonna take partnering with folks across the community to make sure that we have a treatment and rehabilitative-oriented justice system,” Savit said.
Savit says that he will use his judgment, if elected, to decide whether a case is better dealt with outside of the criminal justice system, but that additional resources will need to come from state and local governments to be able to get that case out of the justice system.
Find our feature story on Hugo Mack here, and check back on Sunday for a feature on Arianne Slay.
There are no Republican candidates on the ballot for Washtenaw County Prosecuting Attorney, so the winner of the Democratic primary on Aug. 4 will replace longtime incumbent Brian Mackie, who was first elected as prosecutor in 1992.