It’s been less than a month since Eli Savit was sworn into office, and the Washtenaw County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office has already released 10 policies the office will now be using in future cases. They range from the elimination of unjust policies to implementing new policies that keep various areas of the justice system accountable.
Throughout his campaign, Savit expressed the need for a more holistic approach within the criminal justice system, that the goal should not be to lock the most people up but to focus on amending the hurt that is present in a community. In some cases, we are prosecuting and locking people up for things that are not directly hurting anyone. In others where harm is present, we are not addressing the root causes of why the crime occurred (socioeconomic reasons, mental health and/or trauma, and more). Both of these create further harm, and often impact certain groups over others.
Some policies fall under reforming the justice system specifically regarding prosecutors. They include a policy regarding the elimination of previous ‘zero tolerance’ policies and a policy regarding the elimination of cash bail in the county. The elimination of ‘zero tolerance’ rejects any previous policies that would not allow prosecutors to offer or accept plea bargains or case resolutions. In the official text, Savit had stated that the prosecutor’s office should seek to resolve cases in a manner that “imposes the least restrictive outcome that will ensure public safety.”
The policy that is in regard to cash bail informs that the prosecutor's office has gotten rid of the use of cash bail. Savit explains the history of cash bail and the ways it is unethical, unequally applied, and how it contradicts various laws and court decisions that have been in place for centuries in come cases. As he states, “cash bail forces people to remain in jail before being convicted of a crime.” Even though American law often exclaims the phrase “innocent until proven guilty,” cash bail directly contradicts that by punishing people for a crime they have not been convicted. Savit details that 50% of Michigan’s jail population in recent decades have been folks in pre-trial, meaning that amount of folks are currently incarcerated without having the speedy trial they are granted by the Constitution.
A few can be identified as policies to keep the police accountable; one that deals with cases of officer-involved violence, and the other regarding resisting and obstructing. The former states that going forward, any cases that involve violence by a police officer will be looked into by a third party. This is to protect against possible conflicts of interest, as a county investigating its own officers can open a gateway to bias.
The latter explains that charges of resisting and obstructing will not be put forth until all available evidence has been looked into. With the history of resisting and obstructing charges claimed by officers to justify use of excessive force against citizens, this policy is meant to work against these falsified or exaggerated claims.
A significant amount could be described as policies that partially or eliminate the use of certain charges. Some fall under the category of drug policies, including a policy on marijuana and cannabis, entheogenic plants (certain psychedelics), and Buprenorphine.
With regards to marijuana/cannabis, the Prosecutor’s Office will no longer file criminal charges against either the possession or the use of the substance, also regardless of the amount. Further, they ‘generally decline’ to criminally prosecute the storage or cultivation of the substance. Savit goes into the racist history of cannabis prohibition in this policy, showing that the prohibition not only started from these roots, but continues in the way black and brown people are disproportionately charged.
Certain psychedelics will be ‘functionally decriminalized’ in Washtenaw County with the ‘Policy Regarding Entheogenic Plants.’ Since Ann Arbor voted to decriminalize the use back in the fall, Savit expresses that it would not be in the name of justice to continue prosecuting cases that involve the use of the plants if, in another area of the county, you would not be charged for that same act. Like policy on cannabis-related offenses, when the history of the prohibition is looked at, specifically through the lens of the War on Drugs, the crackdown did not curb drug use.
The last to fall into this category is a bit different, as it relates to a drug that aids with overcoming opioid addiction. The drug, Buprenorphine, is an opioid agonist, meaning that it works like an opioid but does not have the same effects and is not addictive. It is becoming more widely used as it has shown to help many people overcome opioid addiction, with Michigan even making strides to make the treatment more accessible. Since it is still a Schedule III drug, folks can still end up with hefty consequences. This policy means the Prosecutor’s Office will not be prosecuting the use, possession, and, barring exceptional circumstances, the sale or distribution of buprenorphine.
The next policy deals with rescinding part of a policy, though it is not related to a substance of any kind like its predecessors. This is the ‘Policy Regarding Sex Work’, ending the criminalization of consensual sex work in Washtenaw County. It points out that about 100 countries around the world, including Canada, Mexico, and most of Europe have legal forms of consensual sex work, as well as groups like the ACLU and Amnesty International calling for the decriminalization of sex work. Addressing the concerns of things like trafficking, the policy explains that the criminalization of sex work does not actually bring about safety—in fact, it can exacerbate the problems. The office will still investigate cases regarding “trafficking, violence, and offenses against children.”
The last categorical description the remaining policies fit into is regarding driving, particularly pretext stops and offenses related to driver's licenses. Pretext stops are where an officer instigates a traffic stop under the pretext of finding something else to charge over, like pulling someone over under the premise of trying to find another charge to pin against them (often, it is a search to try to find drugs). From here forward, the office will “decline to charge contraband crimes that arise when there is significant reason to believe they those charges arose from a pretext stop.”
With regards to the policy on driver’s licenses, the Prosecutor’s Office will be intent on steering clear of any criminal charges stemming from the act of driving without a license if it is not in the best interest of public safety. Savit points out that in Michigan, having a car is almost a necessity to get to the important events of everyday life. Many folks, through various boundaries in the legal system, are not able to obtain a license though it would not pose harm to the safety of the public. This policy, to not criminally charge if the underlying issue is simply driving without a license, will avoid those who are trying to make a living from being criminalized.
The directives put forward over the past few weeks are a promising step forward for the county. Addressing these strong policy issues upfront shows the commitment to a change in the overarching culture of the criminal justice system. Each has a connection to a history of unjust treatment, seeking to make amends on the matter and end criminalization in the future.