Getting To Know Washtenaw County's New DA
Washtenaw County’s brand new District Attorney, Eli Savit, made good on a campaign promise to eliminate cash bail in the first week of this year.
The former University of Michigan Law School Lecturer won his office in the last election on a progressive platform. But what exactly does the end of what we have gotten to know of in the bail system mean, and what does his new election mean for Washtenaw County?
The following conversation was conducted by phone and has been edited for length and clarity.
The Sun Times News: Explain your position on stance on cash bail.
District Attorney Savit: We’ve been transparent about this and posted a twenty-page policy. I put it on my prosecutor’s page that anybody can review.
But let’s take a step back and think about what cash bail really is. Cash bail is a system where if you are accused of a crime, and you’re going to be held in jail, before you go to jail, you can leave, but only if you have a certain about of money in your bank account. What that means that a poorer person, working class person – including those that may not be a very serious crime, may not pose a danger to the community – they can sit in jail for days, weeks, or months. At the same time, a wealthy person – even one that is accused of a very serious offense and may pose a danger to the community – they are going to go free before going to try simply because they’re wealthier.
I don’t believe the size of your bank account should determine the treatment you get from the Justice system.
So, what we are replacing it with is a system that takes into account the circumstances of the case, puts public
safety front and center and seeks to impose conditions to release consistent with the actual public safety need.
I want to be clear about this: we’re not going to just release everybody pending trial.
The Sun Times News: How can you assure the citizens that this alternative will work?
Savit: We will look at the individual circumstances of the case. If you are accused of murder, armed robbery, rape, or if you’ve got a history of violent felonies, then you have demonstrated that you need to be separated from the community for community safety purposes. There are other cases where you might be acceptable to be released, pending trial. But then you want to put them on a GPS tether, that keeps them away from the survivor of a crime. In other circumstances, you could let someone go free, but put them on an alcohol tether or testing. In some other cases, what may be appropriate is house arrest.
Part of the reason we are doing this is that holding someone when they’re awaiting trial, actually imposes pretty significant harm, not just on the accused, but on their families. If you are held in jail for even a day or two, if you work a shift job, you are likely to lose your job. The data actually clearly shoes that in those circumstances, when you do get out, you are more likely to commit crimes [from] desperation.
So, by not keeping people in jail [unnecessarily] we can actually keep the community safer in the long term.
The Sun Times-News: You emphasized rehabilitation over punishment in corrections in your campaign. Can you talk about that?
Savit: When harm occurs, you can try to punish your way out of it. But the data shows that that pretty clearly doesn’t work. The data shows that there is an underlying reason when somebody comes into the justice system. And we tend to see people coming in over and over. Often, the seriousness of their crimes increases.
My perspective is that our first job is public safety. And to ensure public safety, we should be trying to stop a future crime from ever occurring.
In very serious crimes, you have demonstrated that you need to be separated from the community for a period of time for community safety’s safe. But it’s clear when you are dealing with a mental health issue, a substance abuse issue, we can demand of you that you go get treatment. We can prevent that kind of escalating and future crimes from ever happening.
Jailing people separates people from the community for a period of time. But for the vast majority of cases, we’re not going to be jailing somebody forever. So if we know that they’re going to get out at some point, we’re fair better off addressing the routes of the cause of what’s bringing them in, in the first place.
The Sun Times News: You talked about embracing specialized courts. These are alternatives to the regular justice system, specializing in things like substance abuse and mental health, where someone can avoid a criminal record if they commit to going into alternatives like rehab. Can you explain what they are and how they would work?
Savit: I’m a big proponent of problem solving courts. What those do is, [when] you’re charged with a crime, you can be diverted into this problem solving court. It’s a much more collaborative process, overseen of the judge. But what the justice system demands of you, is that instead of staying behind bars, they set you up with a plan. If it’s a substance abuse issue, you’ve got to get treatment. You may get help for a mental health issue, if that’s the root cause of bringing you into the system. They set you up with an individualized plan.
The Sun Times News: What will you focus on when you mean you are going to focus on violent crime?
Savit: The less time and resources that we are spending on prosecuting lower-level offenses, that frankly don’t pose a huge community safety issue, the more time our prosecuting attorneys can have developing cases and focusing on the crimes keeping people up at night. We only have a limited number of person hours, and I want my prosecutors really laser focused on things like gun crimes, murder, sexual assault. Those are the kinds of crimes that people are really concerned about.
When I talk about taking a rehabilitative option, a restorative option at the front end, and hoping preventing crimes from ever occurring. The flip side is when those crimes do occur, I will really want us to be focused on. Focusing our resources on those types of charges is not just the smart thing to do, it’s also what is going to keep our community safe.
The Sun Times News: You’re going to be working with several different law enforcement agencies. How much influence will you have on how they go about policing?
Savit: I try to meet regularly with my law enforcement counterparts. We’ve been talking around what we should expect from officers and when it comes to us, what we should be looking for on whether we should bring a charge rising from an incident between a civilian and a police officer.
What I will say is that what we are incredibly fortunate to have in Washtenaw County, is really a number of actors, in the justice system, who fully committed to doing things the right way. I talk about de-escalation [training], but the fact is our sheriff has been leading the way on de-escalation.
The other thing I will say on whether I control police operations, of course I do not. I control prosecutions, not police officers. But what we are trying to do is be collaborative, be open to our colleagues in law enforcement. We are opening trainings to talk about bail, what we’re looking for in bring an assaulting or resisting an officer charge, what kind of charges we won’t be bringing for marijuana related offenses. And we are opening those trainings up to our law enforcement partners, to anyone who wants to attend.
I think we work much better together if we know what [we all] are thinking. I plan on taking a very collaborative approach with law enforcement.
The Sun Times News: What is your position on the Abolish the Police movement, which has gained traction recently?
Savit: I am not a police abolitionist.
The Sun Times News: How will you keep the police accountable, if they should break the law?
Savit: I agree with a number of civil liberties groups and legal scholars, that if an officer commits an act of violence against a civilian when they’re on duty, that is something that is wrenching for the community. There is inherently a perception of bias, because prosecutors do work so closely with law enforcement.
You need to seek the installment of a special prosecutor in those circumstances, that doesn’t have those same ties to the community. So that is what I am going to be doing in every case of an officer involved in violence, where criminal charges could be sought.
The Sun Times News: How can you assure that they are truly independent?
Savit: They have a statutory scheme on this. You file a petition with the Attorney-General. The Attorney-General can either take the case, or appoint a special prosecutor that comes from outside of Washtenaw County.
The Sun Times News: The state AG, or the federal AG?
Savit: The state Attorney-General.
The Sun Times News: Is the budget for the public defender in Washtenaw County sufficient?
Savit: I wouldn’t talk about another department head’s budget. But in general, I will say I support more funding going to public defender’s office. I think it’s important that we give everyone in the criminal legal system a fair shot into getting the best representation that they can have. I think our public defender’s office is a great one, but like everyone else’s, they need more resources.
The Sun Times News: Do you have specific plans for the western side of the county?
Savit: I take really seriously my obligation to not just be Ann Arbor-focused, but to represent all of Washtenaw County.
The Sun Times News: We are a very divided country and you’re a prosecutor with very progressive positions. How can you assure conservatives that you serve that your politics are just, constitutional and effective?
Savit: I would really encourage people to read the policies. I made them public to let people know what we’re thinking and exactly why we are doing what we are doing. I believe in transparency and I am hopeful that if there is going to be debate – and debate is healthy, you man not agree with me on everything – at least having that basis [means] we can have a productive conversation.
The second thing is that we are a deeply, deeply divided country. But I think one of the big issues right now is that there is broad cross-ideological consensus on is that we need to change our criminal justice system.
The truth of the matter is that inequities of our justice system have impacted multiple communities; whether your Democratic or Republican, Black or White, poor or wealthy. If you look at how many people have fallen victim to the opioid epidemic, for example, that is something that cuts across party and socioeconomic lines.
You can look at what’s happening up in Lansing as an example. Our legislature is deeply, deeply divided on just about every issue. But this last session, they passed perhaps the most comprehensive way to expunge old criminal records from the entire nation. They made drastic changes to our pre-trial detention and jail systems. They established a bi-partisan task force representing every single cross section of the law enforcement community. People are coming to consensus on this and sometimes for different reasons.
For someone who is progressive, like myself, I am focused on equity. Other folks maybe known somebody who has gone through substance abuse, who deserves treatment and they see them as a human being. … And some people may come at this from a financial perspective, because the truth of the matter is we spend an inordinate amount of money on our jail system. It’s one-fifth of the general fund budget in the state of Michigan [spent] on prisons in Michigan. We’re not getting much out of it. So as a fiscal conservative, this is a pretty great opportunity to make some cuts, if we can get the opportunity to get fewer people in prison, while still keeping our community safe.
On the campaign, I went around the county and talked to voters who saw things differently on a whole host of issues. But when we had conversations, it turns out we had a lot in common on how we were thinking about the criminal justice system.