ANN ARBOR – Washtenaw County Prosecutor Eli Savit has made his mark in his first 21 days in office.
Since being sworn in on Jan. 1, he has introduced a sweeping set of policy changes, including rescinding the county’s no-tolerance policies, scrapping cash bail and combatting racial profiling -- and he’s not done yet.
While these new directives seem to be coming out in rapid fire, they have been a long time in the making.
“There were years of work that went into these policy changes,” said Savit, who added that all of the latest measures were the direct result of campaign promises being put into “cognizable policy directives.”
The civil rights lawyer said at the center of these new policies is public safety and fair treatment of all individuals.
“I am a believer in the justice system based on what you did and not who you are,” said Savit. “I ran because I thought that the prosecutor’s office -- and the justice system more broadly -- was perpetuating injustice.”
He said the new policies introduced by his office should not come as a surprise to community members.
“I was regularly asked during my campaign: ‘What is the first thing that you’re going to do in office?’ I said, ‘Rescind the zero-tolerance policy’ -- and I meant it.”
In fact, it was the first policy he put into effect on his first day in office. Three days later, Savit put Washtenaw County on the map by making it the first county in Michigan to scrap cash bail.
“Cash bail is a system in which you are charged with a crime and you’re held in jail before you’re convicted of anything -- unless you can come up with a certain amount of money to pay your way out,” said Savit.
“Someone who’s poor who is charged with a very minor crime and doesn’t pose a threat to the community -- they may sit in jail for days, weeks or months. This has cascading consequences. If you’re sitting in jail and you work a shift job, after two days, you are likely to lose your job and this could cause you to lose your house, or your kids may have to live with relatives.”
He clarified that individuals who do pose a threat to the public will either be kept in custody or released under certain conditions like house arrest or with a tether, depending on the request of assistant prosecuting attorneys.
The road ahead
Savit said there are still several policy directives in the works, one of which is geared toward youth justice.
“It’s very close to my heart,” said Savit. “I am a former 8th grade public school teacher. Kids aren’t just mini adults and we shouldn’t be trapping them in the criminal legal system for adolescent or childhood mistakes. It should be an opportunity to grow and get their lives back on track.”
He said he takes a holistic approach to the criminal justice system since it often has rippling effects in the broader community.
“There are families and kids that are potentially involved -- both the survivors and the defendants,” said Savit. “And we need to make sure what we’re doing is protecting public safety, treating people fairly but also minimizing criminal effects that come out of the legal system.”
Savit said the Prosecutor’s Office is busy forging partnerships with community organizations outside of the legal system so that they can help guide people to seek out help and resources. For instance, he said he’d rather see people deal with drug use through the health system rather than the legal system.
He also revealed that his office is working on programs that are survivor-driven.
“Going through the criminal justice system can be traumatizing,” said Savit. “We’re working on building out programs around restorative justice, which gives the survivor a choice in how they want to proceed: the traditional system or an alternative plan in which amends can be made to them. The defendant takes responsibility for the harm that they’ve done and acknowledge what they’ve done is wrong.”
Savit said that while he’s been the one introducing policy changes, the community has embraced and supported his vision. He lauded the key players in Washtenaw County who he said are on the same page on how to do justice.
“We have an excellent bench in terms of judges, phenomenal public defenders, a tremendous sheriff and law enforcement leaders that are committed to thinking about things differently in the justice system because they see on the ground the ways in which we are doing things can be improved upon,” he said. “We don’t do any of this alone, and we solicit feedback and input.”
His work as Washtenaw County Prosecutor continues the same way his campaign began: with conversations with community members and activists, including those who had experienced injustice in the county’s legal system.
As for what lies ahead, he’s just getting started.