Protecting the bad guys: New prosecutor instructs staff to no longer file criminal charges for certain crimes

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ANN ARBOR, MI — A new prosecuting attorney has moved very quickly in making changes at the Washtenaw County Prosecutor’s Office that include no longer prosecuting certain crimes and eliminating cash bail.

Prosecuting Attorney Eli Savit has eliminated cash bail and vowed not to press charges against anyone for prostitution, illegal drugs or other contraband discovered by police during a traffic stop. 

The policy directive on “sex work” that Savit issued in January applies to those who sell sex and those who solicit it. RJ Thompson, a sex worker who is also the managing director of the Sex Workers Project of the Urban Justice Center, is thrilled and told Detroit Free Press:

“This is a really wonderful thing that other jurisdictions should duplicate because across the country, black folks … and also trans and cisgender women all bear the disproportionate burden of criminalization.”

Savit was sworn into office on Jan. 1 and will serve a four-year term. Last year, he was endorsed by Senator Bernie Sanders.

Savit reportedly told his staff to use their discretion to determine when charges should be pressed, according to the Detroit News, and told the newspaper:

“What we do in the prosecutor’s office does not have any impact on state law. But prosecutors have inherent discretion to determine when — and in what circumstances — to file criminal charges.

“That’s baked into the system; prosecutors have an independent duty to bring only the charges that are in the interests of justice.”

Savit also promised not to prosecute consensual sex work and said his office won’t press charges for illegal drugs or weapons found by police officers in the course of a routine traffic stop, the Detroit News reported.

MLive reported last month that Savit said:

“I haven’t issued a policy change I didn’t promise was coming when I ran for this office. This is change Washtenaw County has been going toward for a long time now.

I reject the tough on crime, soft on crime dichotomy and am solely focused on the safety of the public and fair justice.”

While the newly minted prosecutor may have questions about cool cat T-shirts, there are still concerns about the public’s safety.

If prosecuting attorneys are directed to ignore pressing charges for prostitution, illegal drugs and contraband, how does the rejection of some current criminal codes keep the public safe?

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Another issue is Savit’s ending of cash bail, which has been criticized as making the county less safe. One of those critics is Michigan Republican State Representative Matt Maddock, who is also a bail bondsman.

Maddock told the Detroit News:

“Cash bail ensures that people show up to court. Eliminating it, as we have seen in every other state that tries to eliminate it, is that the ‘failure to appear’ rate skyrockets and courts cease to effectively function.

“Bail is the financial promise that someone won’t run away. So, if they face serious charges, without bail, they will flee. These policies will kill people.”

The self-described “progressive” Eclectablog criticized Detroit News for not pointing out in more detail that Maddock would benefit from the continuation of a cash bail system, writing:

“One detail about Maddock that is barely mentioned is that he makes his living as a bail bondsman. In other words, if Prosecutor Savit’s ‘no cash bail’ policy were to spread, it would kill the golden goose that pays Maddock’s bills.”

Eclectablog also praised Savit:

“It’s no surprise to me that The Detroit News couldn’t find many legitimate critics of Savit’s policy changes.

“He’s making these changes because he knows they are fair and, because he does his research and these policies have largely already proven to be successful in other municipalities, he knows they work and actually make us safer.

“If you want to see what the future of law enforcement looks like from the prosecution side of things, pay very close attention to Eli Savit and what he’s doing in Washtenaw County.

“Because that is, without a doubt, where things are headed. And we’ll ALL benefit from that.”

Twyla Carter, national policy director at The Bail Project, told  The Appeal:

“We’re very excited about Eli’s no cash bail policy. We’d love to see other elected and appointed officials follow suit, and ultimately what we want to see is the decriminalization of poverty, mental health and addiction.”

However, not everyone is convinced of the perceived benefits of Savit’s new policies. Another critic of Savit’s elimination of cash bail and refusal to prosecute prostitution is St. Clair County Prosecutor Mike Wendling, who told Detroit News:

“I see that as not following the law. We have an obligation to enforce the law. It’s not my job to decide which laws to enforce. The role of the prosecutor is to follow the law as it is written.”

According to Washtenaw County’s writeup on Savit, he served as a law clerk to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and now-retired Sandra Day O’Connor, was a civil-rights and public-interest attorney and began his career as a public-school teacher.

Most recently, Savit served as the City of Detroit’s senior legal counsel, where he led criminal-justice reform work for Michigan’s largest city:

“Eli is also a nationally recognized attorney who has led public-interest lawsuits against some of the country’s toughest adversaries — adversaries such as banks, the opioid industry, slumlords, and corporate polluters. Eli continues to teach at the University of Michigan as a Lecturer.

“Throughout his career in public service, Eli has witnessed first-hand the cascading consequences of a broken criminal-justice system. He ran for Washtenaw County Prosecutor to ensure equitable justice for all Washtenaw County residents and he is humbled by the faith and trust that the voters of Washtenaw County have placed in him.”

Regarding his past criminal-justice reform, the writeup noted:

“At the City of Detroit, Eli was also a steadfast fighter for criminal-justice reform. He spearheaded the City’s efforts to make it easier for people to expunge criminal records. He served as the City’s liaison to Michigan’s statewide task force on jail and pretrial incarceration.

“And he led a team of lawyers, statisticians, and trauma-informed professionals to craft city and state policies that will reduce the prison population, and promote rehabilitation and workforce-development for returning citizens.”

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