The Criminal Justice Listening Tour hosted a stop Tuesday, Sept. 22, at Parkridge Park in Ypsilanti. The tour has been organized by the Democratic nominee for Washtenaw County prosecutor, Eli Savit, who his invited colleagues to speak alongside him.
The purpose of the Listening Tour is for Savit and his colleagues to hear what the community has to say in regards to the criminal justice system, and what experiences they have had. Members of the public were given three minutes to share their concerns with the speakers.
Greg Peoples, a Washtenaw County resident whose son was incarcerated last year, brought up his concern of the recently released Citizens for Racial Equity in Washtenaw (CREW) report. “It talked about how young black men in Washtenaw County are given far greater [prison] sentences than their white counterparts, and I just wondered if someone could address that?” Peoples asked the speakers.
The CREW report showed that in all 11 case categories regarding felony charges, people of color were charged more frequently than those who are white. The report reveals that people of color are three to 29 times more likely to be charged than a white person in the 11 case categories.
Savit stated that the CREW report findings recommended that the County Prosecutor's office should bring in an impartial third party evaluator to identify where people are being treated differently. “When we identify where we’re seeing differential treatment, my vow is that we are going to eliminate that differential treatment,“ Savit said.
Lily Gates, a master’s of social work student at the University of Michigan, who is focusing on interpersonal health, stated that in the U.S., individuals with severe mental health illnesses are three times more likely to be in jail or prison. “How can we get them care instead of punishing them for their symptoms?” Gates asked.
Savit responded that currently people with mental illnesses are being cycled in and out of the justice system. “The mental health system and its interaction with the criminal justice system is quite candidly, I think, the most challenging and most impactful thing that we have to deal with.”
As the nominee for the Washtenaw County prosecutor, Savit explained that the process of screening people with mental illnesses needs to be improved. Rather than just focusing on the wrongdoings committed by someone, Savit believes that they must evaluate and determine whether or not that person should be put into the justice system based on their mental health. Savit advocates for more resources around non-punitive mental health treatment to be put into place by the legislature, more funding for treatment centers, and to make sure the county is providing affordable housing.
“I gotta be honest, this is something that is a heavy lift that is going to take a lot of different people… to really change how we deal with mental illness in this county and in the state,” Savit said.
Other speakers at the event included Washtenaw County Public Defender Delphia T. Simpson, Chief Judge of the Washtenaw County Trial Court Carol Kuhnke, and Washtenaw County Judge Patrick Conlin.
Future tour stops for the event include Chelsea (Timber Town Park) on Sept. 29 and Ann Arbor (Wheeler Park) on Sept. 30. All future events require RSVP which can be done here.