After a months-long investigation into Washtenaw County court records, a citizen-led group has released hard data on racial disparities in how people are charged with crimes. The report found that in one of Michigan’s most populous, and progressive, counties, Black people are charged with felonies at rates between two and 29 times higher than white people charged with the same crimes.
Former state lawmaker Alma Wheeler Smith is co-chair of Citizens for Racial Equality in Washtenaw (CREW), which conducted the study. She says that while the group had heard anecdotal examples of racial disparities and possible bias in the prosecutor’s office and courts, the hard data was still startling.
“It revealed that there were wide racial disparities in the prosecutor's decisions, impacting things [such] as who was charged, the average number of charges, and the average number of convictions per case,” Wheeler Smith said. “It also showed us that we’re not collecting data that would inform us on how justice is being meted out in the county.”
The citizen-led group examined county data where it existed: in the circuit court. Wheeler Smith said the Washtenaw County prosecutor’s office told CREW it didn’t keep data on the race, age, or income of defendants, and that it “had nothing to share.” So CREW worked backwards from the circuit court data to see what the case charges were, reviewing more than 3,600 felony charges across 11 categories.
“I have to say, it looks like bias, and it may be intentional, it may be unintentional. We didn’t dig into that,” Wheeler Smith said. “But we definitely see that there is work to be done to dispense equal justice here in the county.”
As longtime prosecutor Brian Mackie is retiring, Washtenaw County will soon see—for the first time in 30 years—a new lead prosecutor, who will be uniquely positioned to address this issue. The job will likely go to attorney Eli Savit. He ran the most progressive campaign for Washtenaw County prosecutor in a heated three-way Democratic primary, and he has no Republican opponent.
Savit says he plans for an independent, third-party evaluator to partner with the prosecutor’s office and assess its practices, in order to identify where racial disparities or bias might exist.
“There’s a number of places where I think we could potentially see that,” he said. “We could see it in charging decisions, in how many charges are being brought for a similar type of incident, on the severity of the charges, whether somebody’s charged at all. We could see it in the plea bargaining process, who gets better deals according to race.”
Savit says he plans to look into the factors contribute to the racially disparate outcomes highlighted in CREW’s report. Law enforcement’s role in policing or reporting a case, as well as bias in the prosecutor’s office, could both lead to unequal charges, he says.
“What we do know from the CREW report is that we have tremendously racially disparate outcomes, but it just scratches the surface of the issues,” he said.
Savit said he’s “optimistic” that the prosecutor’s office and Washtenaw County law enforcement will be able to work together to address the racial inequities revealed in the CREW report.
“If there are going to be consequences for something that somebody has done, it should be because of what you did, not because of who you are,” he said. “None of us should accept racial inequity or differential treatment in our justice system based on the color of somebody’s skin.”
This post was written by Stateside production assistant Nell Ovitt.