Washtenaw County Prosecutor Eli Savit is creating change. Washtenaw County has joined communities across the world using art + creativity to detour youth away from the justice system. Eli talks about his office’s decision to add preventative creative programs and its partnership with Washtenaw My Brother’s Keeper and the Vera Institute of Justice on this "creative:impact" with show co-hosts Deb Polich of Creative Washtenaw and WEMU’s David Fair.
Creative industries in Washtenaw County add hundreds of millions of dollars to the local economy. In the weeks and months to come, 89.1 WEMU's David Fair and co-host Deb Polich, the President and CEO of Creative Washtenaw, explore the myriad of contributors that make up the creative sector in Washtenaw County.
ABOUT ELI SAVIT:
Eli Savit serves as the elected Prosecuting Attorney for Washtenaw County. Eli’s 4-year term began on January 1st, 2021
Eli has dedicated this career to public service. He formerly served as a law clerk to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, was a civil-rights and public-interest attorney, and started his career as a public-school teacher. Most recently, Eli served as the City of Detroit’s senior legal counsel, where he led criminal-justice reform work for Michigan’s largest city. Eli is also a nationally recognized attorney who has led public-interest lawsuits against some of the country’s toughest adversaries—adversaries such as banks, the opioid industry, slumlords, and corporate polluters. Eli continues to teach at the University of Michigan as a Lecturer.
Throughout his career in public service, Eli has witnessed first-hand the cascading consequences of a broken criminal-justice system. He ran for Washtenaw County Prosecutor to ensure equitable justice for all Washtenaw County residents and he is humbled by the faith and trust that the voters of Washtenaw County have placed in him.
A Washtenaw County native, Eli grew up in Ann Arbor and graduated from Ann Arbor Pioneer High School (where he captained the basketball team). He graduated from Kalamazoo College, where he played college basketball and was voted senior class commencement speaker. Eli started his career as a public school teacher, teaching special-education and general-education 8th grade American history. He then returned home to Ann Arbor to attend the University of Michigan Law School.
After law school, Eli worked for two federal judges, then as an appellate and Supreme Court lawyer. In private practice, he dedicated significant time to pro bono matters—representing children with disabilities, victims of consumer fraud, and asylum applicants fleeing domestic violence and spousal abuse.
Eli was then selected to work as a law clerk for United States Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sandra Day O’Connor (ret.). Following his time at the Supreme Court, Eli turned down lucrative opportunities with major D.C. law firms. Instead, he returned home to Michigan, settling in Ann Arbor and accepting an appointment as the City of Detroit’s senior legal counsel.
During his time with the City of Detroit, Eli earned a reputation as a fighter who is unafraid to take on powerful interests. He led the City’s efforts to hold the pharmaceutical industry accountable for the opioid epidemic. He sued banks, slumlords, and corporations whose housing policies were hurting Detroit residents. And he led the City’s landmark legal efforts to establish that all children have a constitutional right to learn how to read and write.
At the City of Detroit, Eli was also a steadfast fighter for criminal-justice reform. He spearheaded the City’s efforts to make it easier for people to expunge criminal records. He served as the City’s liaison to Michigan’s statewide task force on jail and pretrial incarceration. And he led a team of lawyers, statisticians, and trauma-informed professionals to craft city and state policies that will reduce the prison population, and promote rehabilitation and workforce-development for returning citizens.
Eli also earned a reputation as a staunch advocate for children and families. He worked with the Detroit Public Schools, teachers, and parents to prevent the closure of 24 neighborhood schools. He worked with the ACLU and community partners to craft a program that saved thousands of Detroit residents from home foreclosures. He secured millions of dollars in funding for trauma-informed wraparound services for Detroit schoolchildren. And he led the negotiating team which reached an historic deal with the Canadian government to provide nearly $60 million in community benefits related to the Gordie Howe International Bridge project—including $10 million for workforce development, and $35 million for health monitoring and air-pollution remediation in Southwest Detroit.
In addition to serving as Washtenaw County's Prosecuting Attorney, Eli is a faculty member at the University of Michigan Law School. In his academic capacity, he has published scholarly articles on topics such as state and local government, educational equity, campaign-finance reform, and environmental law. His work has also been published in popular publications such as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Detroit News, the Detroit Free Press, Slate, The Hill, and MLive.com.
Eli has also been an integral part of several major, successful civil rights and environmental initiatives in Michigan and across the country. Representative matters on which he has worked include a successful legal effort to have the Michigan Civil Rights Commission recognize discrimination claims against LGBTQ Michiganders, and assisting the States of New Jersey and Maryland and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico in their efforts to hold corporate polluters responsible for PFAS and MTBE contamination in the state’s waterways.
Eli serves, or has served, on a number of youth-focused boards of directors, including the Detroit’s Hope Starts Here Early Childhood Initiative Stewardship Board, the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, the Board of Directors at Ypsilanti’s FLY Children's Art Center. He also serves on the Executive Committee of the Michigan Democratic Party, and on the Executive Board of the Washtenaw County Democratic Party. He is a proud union member, as part of the Lecturers’ Employee Organization (American Federation of Teachers-Michigan Local 6244).
David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and I'd like to welcome you to another edition of creative:impact. It is our weekly look at the local creative sector. Again, I'm David Fair, and I'm here with my content partner and co-host, Deb Polich, albeit by phone. Deb is president and CEO of Creative Washtenaw. And welcome back once again.
Deb Polich: David, you know, for centuries, arts and cultural programs have been at every level of public safety, including prevention and activism, therapeutic and empowerment in correctional facilities and career training for people returning to the community after incarceration.
David Fair: I would expect that to be true because arts and creativity intersects with just about every sector that we touch. So, I must say. I don't hear much evidence of how or if these programs impact public safety or the justice system.
Deb Polich: Well, exploring that evidence with our guests is our goal. Let's welcome Washtenaw County prosecutor Eli Savit.
David Fair: Welcome to creative:impact.
Eli Savit: I'm glad to be here. Thank you so much for having me.
Deb Polich: So, Eli, you have a practically perfect resume for a public prosecutor. You clerked for not one, but two Supreme Court justices, Sandra Day O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. And you've taken on some daunting foes: the pharmaceutical industry and the opioid epidemic, banks and slumlords who have unfair housing practices in Detroit. And you were on the team that won the case establishing that all children have a constitutional right to learn how to read and write. Pretty phenomenal. But, for me, glaringly absent from your resume is no mention of arts and creative experience or involvement. But, just recently, your office announced an arts and creative partnership with Washtenaw County's My Brother's Keeper and the Vera Institute of Justice. It's geared toward reducing justice involvement for young men of color in Washtenaw County. What are you calling the project and really what is its goal?
Eli Savit: So, our partnership with My Brother's Keeper, which I'm tremendously excited about, it's called the Formula seven three four diversion program. And, it actually builds on really fantastic work that Washtenaw My Brother's Keeper has already been doing through its Formula seven three four program. Let's take a step back. Washtenaw My Brother's Keeper is the sort of local affiliate of the National My Brother's Keeper organization that was founded during the Obama administration to connect adult men of color with young men of color and provide mentorship, relationships, workforce development, and the like. And we've got some phenomenal local leaders at Washtenaw My Brother's Keeper, including Jamal Bufford, who people that follow the local hip hop scene, as I did when I was in high school, he's a local rapper. He's had this group called Athletic Mike League that was, you know, something that I follow personally in high school.
Deb Polich: And we had him on the show.
Eli Savit: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And his idea behind Formula seven three four is, "Look, let's bring the sort of younger generation, younger musical artists who perform hip hop. Let's bring them in. Let's coproduce an album." But it won't just be sort of any album. It's really grounded in restorative practices. And before every studio session, what they did--and they did this last year and released the first album this year--but what they did was they would have circles and they would have conversations about really deep and impactful issues. What does it mean to be a man in the current climate? What's your relationship like with your father? How should we be treating women? They talk about things, like police-involved shootings and the George Floyd killing. And, of course, this all took place during COVID. They've got a documentary on it on the making of this album. And it just blows you away in terms of how powerful this was. Look, it does a couple of things. One is grounded in restorative practices. And, two, it connects younger men of color with adult mentors that share their passions. So Jamall sort of caters, and we started thinking about this together and we started thinking, "Look, here is exactly what young people who are going down the wrong path need is connections to real adult mentors who share their passion, an opportunity to engage in these kinds of conversations and restorative practice as well as workforce development. So, what we are doing with this program is we are reserving a certain amount of spot in the second iteration of Formula 734 for young men who may be going down the wrong path and are coming across our desk at the prosecutor's office, but can benefit from this. And not only are they going to get to participate in the Formula seven three four album creation, but Jamall had the incredible idea. He said, "Look, not everybody is a rapper, right? We know that." But there are people who may be interested in careers that are adjacent to the music industry. Something like videography, photography, journalism, event promotion. So, we're offering those opportunities and those opportunities for workforce development, in addition to the mentorship, in addition to participating in these conversations. And, you know, that's really what young people need. That's what gets them back on the right track. So we're tremendously excited about this program and can't wait to see it get started in its second iteration.
David Fair: creative:impact continues on Eighty-Nine one WEMU. And we're talking with Washtenaw County prosecutor Eli Savit about a new art space program his office is offering to youth as an alternative to facing criminal charges. And, along that line, for those you do divert to this program with My Brother's Keeper in the seven three four project, how will it spare them the legal process?
Eli Savit: So what we are saying is, "Look, we're giving you an affront to a criminal justice involvement. We don't have to bring the instant charges". And, of course, the only people that, you know, we'd feel comfortable diverting into this program are those who, you know, we think may be going down the wrong path, but they don't pose an imminent public safety risk. So, if you shoot a gun at somebody, you know, you're a danger to the community. We've got to do what we need to do to protect public safety. But we're trying to get young people earlier in that process. And what we're saying is, "Look, this is part of what we're asking you to do. Go to this program, participate in these sessions, get this workforce training, build these relationships with, you know, mentors in the community and stay out of trouble." Yeah, exactly. And stay out of trouble. And if you do all of that and you go through this program and you stay out of trouble, and that's that's an important component of this, we never have to bring the charges in the first place and saddle you with a criminal record, because, by doing this and by staying out of trouble, you've demonstrated to us that you're getting back on the right track. And that's really what we should all want, both from a sort of equity and fairness perspective, but also from a public safety perspective. We do a lot better when we address what is bringing somebody into the criminal legal system in the first place, and this program that has the capacity to address those issues.
Deb Polich: So, you know, oftentimes, when communities pilot a new program such as this, and it doesn't produce immediate results or if leadership changes, the program is defunded. Many of these programs take so many years to actually show the results. What's the evidence you're looking for that this is going to work? And how much time and how do you make sure that it's retained and sustained until you can measure those results?
Eli Savit: Well, this is where we're very grateful to the Vera Institute, who is our national funder on this. And they were very excited about this program. We've got funding sufficient to allow the program to expand and to build and to be sustained for some time at no cost to county taxpayers. What we are looking for, of course, is, first and foremost, we want to make sure that the young people to participate in this program don't come back into the criminal legal system. If we don't see them again coming across the prosecutor's office desk, if charges aren't getting referred to our office, that's a measure of success. But the other wonderful thing about My Brother's Keeper is it doesn't just stop there. The older folks that are involved in My Brother's Keeper, they do follow up with the young people that they're working with. So, they'll check in with them and say, "Hey, you know, do you have a job? Are you continuing your education? Are you securely housed?" Things like that. And so, we'll be looking at that is not just the white line metrics of whether somebody's coming back into the criminal legal system, but are we setting people and young people up to thrive? Because, in the long run, that is really what keeps us safe and also what we should want for everybody in our community. We should be a place in which everybody has an opportunity to thrive, even if, you know, they may have made some missteps while they were young.
David Fair: Very frequently, when it involves those who are traversing their way through the justice system, there can be community pushback. But it sounds to me many of the issues that typically lead to that pushback are being addressed here. Are you finding that there is widespread community support for this program?
Eli Savit: Yes, absolutely. People are really excited about this. We announced a program with people getting back out into community events. I've had the opportunity to go to some, and people are really excited about it. If you go out into the community, obviously, people want first and foremost to be safe. But the question is how do we really ensure long term public safety? And, you know, almost unanimously, people will say, who do people whose top priority is public safety they say, "Look, what we need more than anything, we need to get these kids jobs. We need to get these kids something to do." I see kids in my neighborhood getting into trouble. And, yeah, it's something that I'm worried about from a public safety perspective, but really, we know that the best thing that we can do to ensure public safety is to give them something positive to do and to give them mentors. And that's exactly what this program does. So I think it addresses a lot of community concern and also community needs.
Deb Polich: So, Eli, we really think that this might this has so much potential, and we'll look forward to hearing more about it and perhaps having you back on the show to report some of those outcomes. But thank you so very much for being with us today sharing this program with us.
Eli Savit: Thank you so much for having me. And I'll look forward to joining you again. Hope we have good stuff to report.
David Fair: That is Washtenaw County prosecutor Eli Savit. We've been talking about how arts and creative programs aid public safety and the justice system. You can learn more by going to our website at WEMU dot org, and we'll connect you everywhere you need to go. My co-host is Deb Polich. She is president and CEO Creative Washtenaw and my creative:impact co-host. And we'll be back next week.
Deb Polich: Absolutely. With another creative Washtenaw guest.
David Fair: I'm David Fair. And this is your community NPR Station, Eighty-Nine one WEMU FM and WEMU HD one Ypsilanti.
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