The Unseen Accomplishments of a Reform-Minded Prosecutor’s Office
By Anthony Hernandez
2021 FJP Summer Fellow
Stanford Law School, Class of 2023
The path to my 2021 summer fellowship with the Washtenaw County Prosecutor’s Office in Ann Arbor, Mich., started a few years ago in a different Midwestern state. I stepped away from my job as a teacher to work full-time on a campaign to unseat an incumbent district attorney. Like many grassroots races, we were a scrappy and small campaign running against an incumbent so powerful he had run unopposed in multiple prior races.
There were many high-profile stories that underscored the differences between the incumbent and others in the race. Yet as our campaign gained momentum, I began to realize that the vast majority of the harm inflicted by prosecutors would never land on the front page. I heard directly from members of the community about less publicized stories: parents who miss work because they can’t post bail, a young person unable to pursue certain careers because of an arrest record, a community losing trust that white police officers who kill Black people will face accountability.
Unfortunately, my candidate lost the race, though we came close, an impressive feat considering the grassroots nature of our campaign. The people I met and the issues I worked on inspired me to apply to law school, which is how I arrived in Ann Arbor to work for Eli Savit, the recently elected Washtenaw County Prosecuting Attorney.
After spending so much time digging into what an elected prosecutor should not do, this summer I was able to work in an office that, in many ways, is an exemplar of what a reform-minded prosecutor can and should do.
As people, Eli and his Chief Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Victoria Burton-Harris are kind, humble, collaborative, and compassionate. But more importantly, they’re able to imbue those characteristics into their administration’s policies. And as an FJP Fellow at the office this summer, the projects I worked on led with those same values: establishing a community-based pre-charge diversion program for young people and drafting an amicus brief filed in the Michigan Supreme Court asking the Court to consider, in addition to constitutional questions, the cascading negative impacts intrusive police stops have on kids and teenagers.
As I sat down to write this reflection, an interesting parallel emerged between my experiences pre-law school and this past summer. In the same way that much of the harm of tough-on-crime prosecutors goes unnoticed, I saw how many of the benefits of reform-minded prosecution also fly under the radar. One of Eli’s new policies in particular highlights this: Washtenaw County’s approach to buprenorphine and methadone.
Following the lead of Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George in Vermont, Washtenaw County is no longer prosecuting the use or possession of buprenorphine and methadone. The policy responds to a public health reality — for people working to break their addiction to opioids, buprenorphine and methadone allow for the restoration of normal brain chemistry in a way that is often unobtainable via an abstinence approach.
Eli admits that while the policy didn’t grab headlines, it’s the policy that he’s declined the most charges under, by far, and he believes it has almost certainly saved lives. It’s also a policy that I only became familiar with during my last few weeks in the office, a testament to its ability to fly under the radar.
How do supporters of the reform-minded prosecutor movement tell the success stories of these evidence-based policies, like Washtenaw County’s buprenorphine and methadone policy? In some ways, I think the success of the movement will depend on educating the public about the accomplishments of reform. Storytelling is a powerful tool in political campaigns and social change. Bringing to light the tangible, human benefits of what reform-minded prosecution can do is a unique challenge, and one that I hope to continue to contribute to.
For more information about the FJP Summer Fellows Program, visit the FJP website.