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Justice Wins in Michigan

Photo of gavel on judge's bench.
The ACLU’s focus on a prosecutor race in Oakland County paid off.
Photo of gavel on judge's bench.
Jessica Ayoub,
Public Engagement Strategist, ACLU of Michigan
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August 18, 2020

When voters resoundingly chose Karen McDonald in the August 4 primary to become her party’s nominee for Oakland County prosecutor, the ACLU of Michigan considered it a major win. Not for a particular candidate, but for the policies that can help us end our community’s overreliance on incarceration and eliminate racism within our criminal legal system. Voters are increasingly seeking the kinds of policies at the heart of our Smart Justice Campaign, as illustrated by this race and many others across the country.

Oakland County is one of the state’s largest counties. It has Michigan’s second-largest jail population and some of the greatest racial disparities in the criminal legal system statewide. For instance, Black people are six times more likely to be admitted to the Oakland County Jail than white people — even though they only make up about 14 percent of the county’s total population. There is no doubt that the recently ousted prosecutor played a significant role in getting the county into this shameful predicament, and a prosecutor committed to reform can help get us out.

The prosecutor’s role is uniquely powerful. No single person has as much control over the fate of individuals caught up in the criminal legal system than the local prosecutor. Elected as their county’s chief law enforcement officer, prosecutors must strive to reflect the views and priorities of their community members, who are increasingly supporting measures to end mass incarceration and demand transparency in decision-making.

Michigan is among the many places where this is happening.

Earlier this month, a story in the The Intercept took note of the growing momentum behind the movement to elect progressive prosecutors:

“On Tuesday night [Aug. 4], the movement realized a major step forward, with reformist prosecutors . . . winning Democratic primaries in counties covering at least 3 million people in four states.”

One of the people featured in The Intercept’s story was McDonald, a reform-minded candidate who defeated 12-year incumbent Jessica Cooper in what was described as a huge upset to win her party’s nomination for the Oakland County prosecutor job.

Part of what makes the win so heartening is the margin of victory. Voters soundly rejected Cooper. In doing so, they also rejected years of tough on crime policies.

For instance, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that people sentenced as juveniles to life without parole should be resentenced, and that life sentences should be sought only in “rare and unusual circumstances,” Cooper responded by contending that 90 percent of the children her office had locked up for life should never be released. In other words, in her view, nearly every case represented a “rare and unusual circumstance,” demonstrating an extreme lack of both compassion and common sense.

Cooper moreover was notorious for her harsh prosecution of medical marijuana cases, refusal to participate in drug treatment courts, and an overall lack of transparency from her office. McDonald, on the other hand, campaigned on ending cash bail, investing in alternatives to incarceration, and holding police accountable.

The primary election outcome was also encouraging in Washtenaw County, MI, where progressive candidate Eli Savit won the Democratic nomination for county prosecutor with more than 50 percent of the vote in the three-way race.

“Savit ran on eliminating cash bail, ending coercive plea bargaining, focusing on rehabilitation and reintegration for people who’ve completed criminal sentences, and moving away from a ‘jail-first’ mentality by prioritizing diversion and treating mental health, trauma, and addiction outside of the criminal system,” The Intercept reported.

The National ACLU and several of its state affiliates, including Michigan, have been deeply committed to these reforms.

As a nonpartisan organization, the ACLU does not support or endorse candidates. Instead, we worked hard to make sure voters knew the policy positions of prosecutorial candidates on a variety of issues related to racism and over-incarceration by launching our “Power of Prosecutors” campaign in June. We then sent a briefing guide to all 114 county prosecutor candidates throughout the state. That guide, “The Power of Prosecutors: A Platform for Smart Justice,” outlines the critical policy reforms we think are needed to end mass incarceration. Moreover, we asked each candidate to submit a survey outlining their positions on combatting racism, police accountability, clearing marijuana convictions for now legal amounts, investing in alternatives to incarceration, and other factors key to overhauling the criminal legal system.

We invested greatly in making sure Oakland County voters, in particular, knew the candidates’ positions on key issues. To that end, we spread our message through a television ad that reached more than 98 percent of voters, digital ads that reached more than one million people, direct mail to 80,000 households, nearly 40,000 calls and more than 400,000 texts to voters about the candidates.

This work paid off. Along with informing voters about the platforms of candidates in the primary, we significantly built our capacity by recruiting about 1,200 new volunteers, which will allow us to continue this push into the November general election.

We will continue educating voters about the importance of prosecuting attorneys, and about candidates’ positions on reform. Most importantly, we will be there reminding voters to make their voice heard — our criminal legal system and democracy depend on it.

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