The national story behind the 2020 Washtenaw County prosecutor’s election

To fully understand the 2020 election for Washtenaw County Prosecutor, it must be seen in the national context, where a split over how to improve the criminal justice system is playing out in prosecutorial elections in counties all across America. Ours is just one of those.

In the last few years, activists across America have sought to elect progressive district attorneys who come from outside the system and openly pledge to disrupt it. The highest-profile case is that of Philadelphia’s Larry Krasner, who compared his 2017 election as district attorney to “the pirates taking control of the ship.”

Here’s his response after already assuming the role of Philadelphia’s district attorney – as to what the role of prosecutors has been in the disaster that is the criminal justice system in America:

WATKINS (Interviewer) : Prior to this you were a lifelong defense attorney and something of an antagonist of the system. You had a front-row seat to what you’ve called in a couple places, “the slow- motion car crash of the criminal justice system.” What role do you think prosecutors played in this car crash, one I suppose we now call mass incarceration?

KRASNER: I would say that they built the car, maintained it poorly, tuned it incorrectly, and deliberately drove it into the wall at the highest speed possible while intoxicated. I would say they played a pretty big role in causing a slow-motion car crash and they did it in their capacity as prosecutors working in the office. But also very often, they then went on into politics where they had sway over legislation or where they had discretion as elected officials to do things in positions other than chief prosecutor, and frankly, continued to do bad things.

Other high-profile outsiders for prosecutor who recently ran and won include Chesa Boudin (San Francisco’s new prosecutor), Rachael Rollins (Suffolk County, MA, includes Boston), Wesley Bell (Ferguson, MO). Tiffany Cabàn ran in Queens, NYC and lost by a sliver after a recount.

Across the country, communities and activists and candidates have said, enough. These are not cosmetic problems that we’ll fix with a coat of paint, they are structural issues that will require a major teardown and rebuilding.

It’s against this backdrop that our local race plays out.

Eli Savit is the “disrupt from outside” candidate. He has no experience as a prosecutor, which he observes makes him better-positioned to structurally change what the office does:

“I think that if you want real change in the justice system, you want people in the prosecutor’s office who have a different background–in civil rights; criminal defense; experience holding corporations accountable. That’s what we’ve seen in other jurisdictions that have elected prosecutors who make real change–and that’s work I’ve done my whole career. I think my experience seeing people (and representing clients!) beyond at a time when they’re involved in the criminal-justice system is a plus.”

He’s appeared on webinars with other progressive candidates for prosecutor from around the country and has received national endorsements.  For instance, from John Legend. He shares a perspective and policy stances with outsider candidates elsewhere. For instance, like Krasner, Cabán, and Boudin, Savit seeks to end cash bail (his opponents say this requires legislative change and isn’t in the purview of the prosecutor’s office).

Arianne Slay is the “improve from inside the system” candidate. She worked for nine years in the county prosecutor’s office under outgoing 28-year incumbent prosecutor Brian Mackie and is a self-identified career prosecutor. The Michigan Daily writes, “she says that she admires Mackie’s work and would like to maintain the experience and integrity he carries, but she intends to look into more individualized cases rather than Mackie’s approach of addressing blanket policies. ‘I will not be the same prosecutor as Mr. Mackie,’ Slay said.”

A third candidate, Hugo Mack, is running on applying his personal vision for Restorative Justice and “victim wholeness” to the existing criminal justice system, retaining its components and practices.

The local activist group “Liberate, Don’t Incarcerate” gave questionnaires to each candidate. They graded the responses, producing a scorecard and summaries for each candidate. I’ll reprint the summaries here:

Mack: D-. Mack’s approach to his candidacy as prosecutor is to advocate for restorative justice, but his approach is not grounded in the actual principles or application of the model. He also repeatedly expresses a foundational belief in the need for and function of a punitive justice system.

Savit: A. Savit’s approach to his candidacy as prosecutor is to exercise the power of the prosecutor’s office, to the extent he deems possible, to challenge and reverse some harms of the criminal punishment system by shifting resources and power to communities and challenging certain aspects of current punitive approaches.

Slay: C+. Slay’s approach to her candidacy as prosecutor is to work within the current system to make improvements that focus on diversion and restorative justice, while keeping all such programming within the criminal punishment system itself, and resisting committing to actions that use the sway of the prosecutor’s office to challenge its current operation and function.

The summaries of Savit’s and Slay’s candidacies capture the essence of the national debate, playing out in counties from Philadelphia to Queens to Washtenaw. Should the criminal justice system be fundamentally challenged and its resources and power shifted to communities – including by running a disruptive candidate for prosecutor? Or should the current system be preserved as it is, with incremental improvements made from within by someone familiar with how it currently operates? That’s the question at the heart of this election.

Slay offers a clear choice for those who believe in the current system. Savit, who would disrupt it, has less of an outsider track record than many of his peer candidates across the country. As a public defender, Krasner sued the police department 75 times. Caban is also a public defender as well as an organizer with the NYC Democratic Socialists of America. Savit’s experience and affiliations are less radical, though still progressive. But his stances and rhetoric indicate that he’s dedicated to dismantling an unjust system, and that promise has brought him support from like-minded individuals and groups near and far.

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