Racial disparities plague Washtenaw County criminal legal system. New report has…

WASHTENAW COUNTY, MI – Create unarmed response teams to respond to 911 calls for mental health crises. Expand restorative justice options as an alternative to criminal charges. Eliminate school suspensions and expulsions as widely as possible.

Evidence suggests Washtenaw County’s criminal legal system is rife with disparities based on race, and those are among the 65 recommendations of a sprawling new report released on Aug. 31 that lays out ways to fix it.

The 187-page report is the product of months of research and work by the Washtenaw Equity Partnership, a diverse group that united more than 100 community members in the effort, from the county’s top prosecutor, judges and police officials to residents who have firsthand experience serving prison time, activists and community leaders.

It surveys the criminal legal system’s overlapping gears — including police, prosecutors, the courts, jails and probation systems — from a thousand feet, describing how they work together to produce harsher outcomes for Black people and what can be done to change that.

“We tried to look at it as a continuum as opposed to silos,” said Alma Wheeler Smith, a former state lawmaker who serves as chair of the Washtenaw Equity Partnership.

“Because if we can’t see once people enter (the system) how each element impacts and winnows who gets charged, who gets charged what, how they get defended and how the courts sentence, then you’re not seeing at what points the racial disparity really gets compounded,” she said.

The partnership emerged out of other initiatives, like a 2020 citizen report that examined criminal case data from more than 1,000 Washtenaw County felony cases, finding Black defendants were more likely to see additional charges and harsher sentences than white defendants.

With a grant from the Michigan Justice Fund and working with the Vera Institute of Justice, a national policy and research nonprofit, the Washtenaw partnership continued to crunch the numbers.

Black people are arrested at rates seven to 14 times higher than white residents for violent crimes and five to eight times higher for nonviolent ones, the report found by analyzing three years of data from police departments in Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor, as well as the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office.

Data from the Ann Arbor Police Department, Ypsilanti Police Department and Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Office show arrest totals and rates for Black and white people for violent offenses, as shown in the Aug. 31, 2023 Washtenaw Equity Partnership report on reducing racial disparities in the criminal legal system.Washtenaw Equity Partnership

The pattern continues in court, according to an analysis of nearly eight years of data included in the report.

Black people make up 12.3% of the county’s population but 53.8% of those with charges in the county Trial Court as well as 70% of people charged with capital felonies, serious charges punishable by up to by up to life in prison, it states.

Judges find Black defendants guilty at “much higher rates” than white defendants, it found, while noting the analysis had its limitations and the disparities couldn’t be solely or primarily attributed to racial bias.

Still, reducing those disparities will take a wide-ranging effort, involving areas beyond the legal system itself, the report found.

“The overarching message in this report’s findings and recommendations is that, to tackle racial disparities, Washtenaw County must reduce the scope and punitiveness of the formal criminal legal system and strengthen support services in local government and communities,” it states.

Its 65 recommendations are spread over five strategy areas that begin before someone has any contact with police and continue all the way to after they’re released from jail or prison.

Officials should find ways to prevent residents from coming into contact with the legal system in the first place, the report recommends, and that means improving social and economic conditions to prevent criminal behavior, Wheeler Smith said.

The report suggest expanding affordable housing, advocating for the decriminalization of drugs for personal use, setting up safe injection sites, funding attorneys to help tenants facing eviction and expanding “ban-the-box” efforts to expand employment and housing options for those with criminal records, among other steps boosting the capacity of social service organizations.

Inside the court system, officials should strive to divert defendants from incarceration, limiting the use of money bail, expanding the kinds of cases that can participate in restorative justice initiatives and dealing with racial disparities specialty courts, like those focused on mental health or drug use, the report recommends.

Once people who do serve time in jail or prison are released, they should be better supported by re-entry programs, it suggests.

“We know that we let a lot of people down with not having adequate housing. They don’t come out of prison with a driver’s license and any kind of housing lined up for them, so that puts them on a path to return,” Wheeler Smith said.

The report also spills substantial ink discussing ways to keep young people out of the legal system, recommending officials divert as many juvenile cases as possible and focus on resources for community groups supporting youth.

Schools should fully eliminate the use of suspension as a mode of discipline for kindergarten through fifth graders and mostly eliminate it for middle and high schoolers, it recommends, with the goal of keeping children in classrooms.

The roadmap in the report emerged from a novel process that involved firsthand testimony from residents, data gathering and analysis and sets of working groups involving many community organizations and people working inside the legal system, Wheeler Smith said. She hopes it will be a model for communities across the country.

The founding partners of the partnership included the county Public Defender’s Office, Trial Court, Prosecutor’s Office, Board of Commissioners and Citizens for Racial Equity in Washtenaw, the group that produced the 2020 sentencing report.

But many county entities, with the exception of the Prosecutor’s Office, formally withdrew from the process, though some of their members stayed involved, Wheeler Smith said.

The county Sheriff’s Office was unable to grant staff time to participate, stretched thin during the COVID-19 pandemic, Wheeler Smith said, while giving Sheriff Jerry Clayton credit for advancing his office’s own racial equity initiatives, including increased cooperation with mental health professionals. Sheriff’s Office officials didn’t respond to a request for comment.

County Prosecutor Eli Savit said it was important for members of his office to be involved, and several did so on a volunteer basis.

“We have an obligation as public servants to always be examining our own work and trying to make sure we’re doing things right and improving where improvements need to be made,” Savit said.

He added he looks forward to working with a Washtenaw Equity Partnership “bridge team” that will work toward implementing the recommendations. Some of them require no funding and could actually cut costs, according to the report.

Wheeler Smith said the county board’s current chair, Justin Hodge, is on the bridge team, and she sees “new buy-in” from the county toward advancing the recommendations.

“I know that the courts are serious about looking at they work with other components of the system and how they might change their internal approaches,” she said.

That could include better tracking data in the criminal system.

Among the report’s major recommendations is the suggestion that officials create a “county data warehouse” that involves contributions from across the legal system, boosting transparency and the ability to evaluate its effects on people. Too often data isn’t being reviewed by offices inside the criminal legal system and those entities are rarely integrated or talking to each other, Wheeler Smith said.

“The overarching theme of this report is the substantial lack of publicly available, usable data at nearly every point in the criminal justice system,” the report states, describing difficulties obtaining useable data from some parts of the system for the report.

That’s a problem across the country, Savit said, and his office is working with the ACLU of Michigan and University of Michigan Law School on analyzing case information with an eye toward racial inequities.

“I’m a strong believer that if there’s going to be consequences in the criminal system, it should be because of what you did not because of who you are,” he said.

The full Washtenaw Equity Partnership report is available on the group’s website.

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