Washtenaw County Prosecutor Eli Savit launches transparency project with U-M, ACLU

Data-driven project aims to expose potential prosecutorial system inequities


ANN ARBOR – Washtenaw County Prosecutor Eli Savit announced Tuesday the launch of the “Prosecutor Transparency Project” in partnership with University of Michigan’s Law School and the ACLU of Michigan.

The project, which begins immediately, aims to uncover possible racial inequities by analyzing data surrounding decision-making by the prosecutor’s office. Data points include the individual who is charged with a crime and their race, the nature of the charge and other critical information like plea-bargaining conduct.

The project is the first of its kind in Michigan and the results will be made public.

“I’m thrilled to have this incredible partnership in place to drill down into the data in an effort to identify and eliminate racial inequities in the Prosecutor’s Office,” Savit said in a news release. “We know systemic racism exists in all facets of society, and the Prosecutor’s Office is no exception.

“This partnership will go a long way towards helping inform how we make decisions, and ensuring that justice is dispensed in an unbiased manner moving forward. With nationally renowned experts leading our work, Washtenaw County residents will have confidence that our prosecutor’s office is treating everyone fairly and evenhandedly.”

Independent researchers at U-M will be conducting the audit, which will be funded by U-M, the ACLU and Vital Projects Fund based in Oregon.

The partnership follows through on one of Savit’s main campaign promises: to identify and eradicate racially disparate conduct in the county’s criminal justice system by partnering with independent, third-party researchers. Additionally, the project will not be utilizing taxpayer funds.

In August, Citizens for Racial Equity in Washtenaw released a report suggesting that Black residents in the county were much more likely than white residents to be charged with criminal offenses. The announcement of the project fulfills a recommendation by CREW to study racially disparate treatment in depth.

“CREW is elated by this partnership, and by our new prosecutor’s commitment to address racial inequity head-on,” Alma Wheeler Smith, who serves as co-chair of CREW and was formerly a state senator legislator and Chair of the Michigan Civil Rights Commission, said in a news release.

“The CREW report scratched the surface of deep racial injustice in our criminal system, and further study is sorely needed. We are confident that the Washtenaw County Prosecutor’s model can be replicated across the state and applaud Eli Savit’s leadership.”

According to a news release, the project will progress in three stages:

  • Researchers will first quantify racial disparities in decisions made by the Prosecutor’s Office.
  • They will then review cases with similar fact patterns for white people and people of color to determine how the outcomes of those cases may reflect racial inequities.
  • Finally, in consultation with researchers, the Prosecutor’s Office will identify metrics to track to ensure equitable treatment. These metrics will be made public on the Prosecutor’s website.

“Prosecutors are the most powerful actors in the criminal legal system and must be held accountable through transparency in their decision-making,” Shelli Weisberg, ACLU of Michigan political director said in a statement.

“The ACLU is deeply committed to dismantling racism in our criminal legal system and ending mass incarceration in Michigan’s criminal legal system and are confident that funding the ‘Prosecutor Transparency Project’ will go a long way to accomplishing this goal, and hope to develop similar partnerships around the state with other prosecutors.”

Professor J.J. Prescott, one of the country’s premier scholars in empirical criminal justice, will be leading the research team at U-M’s Law School. His work was recently central in the successful movement of sweeping expungement bills through the Michigan Legislature.

“It’s exceedingly rare -- if not unheard of -- for prosecutors to take an unflinching, unbiased look at racial bias in our system,” Prescott said in a news release. “I’m excited that this work is starting in Washtenaw County, and I’m hopeful that this project can serve as a national model for prosecutors across the nation.”

Grady Bridges, a data scientist and research scholar at U-M’s Law School will be largely responsible for the project. He has spent years compiling and analyzing data from Michigan’s criminal justice system, was the data consultant for the CREW report and has served as Data Administrator for Michigan’s Criminal Justice Policy Commission.

University-wide research initiative Poverty Solutions will provide technical expertise for the project and will create and lead a data dashboard that’s transparent and publicly accessible for the Prosecutor’s Office. Through action-based research, the initiative aims to both alleviate and prevent poverty.

Manager of student engagement at Poverty Solutions, Dr. Trevor Bechtel, will lead these efforts.

About the Author:

Meredith has worked for WDIV since August 2017 and was voted one of Washtenaw County's best journalists in 2019 by eCurrent's readers. She covers the community of Ann Arbor and has a Master's degree in International Broadcast Journalism from City University London, UK.