Washtenaw County Prosecutor's Office, ACLU of Michigan, University of Michigan announce release of Prosecutor Transparency Project study

March 5, 2024

Today, the Prosecutor Transparency Project released findings from a multi-year analysis of racial disparities in the prosecutorial system in Washtenaw County. The Prosecutor Transparency Project — a collaboration between the Washtenaw County Prosecutor’s Office, the ACLU of Michigan, the University of Michigan Law School, and the University of Michigan’s Poverty Solutions — seeks to analyze potential racial disparities in decisions made by the Washtenaw County Prosecutor’s Office.

A detailed summary of the findings is available at https://myumi.ch/23NQ4

As part of the Prosecutor Transparency Project, the Prosecutor’s Office gave independent researchers at the University of Michigan Law School complete access to its criminal case management systems, containing data from nearly 35,000 cases from 2017-2022. Those researchers analyzed the data to determine whether racial disparities exist at key prosecutorial decision-making points.

The Prosecutor Transparency Project represents the first time independent researchers have been provided access to extensive prosecutorial data in Michigan for the purpose of conducting a race-equity analysis. The Washtenaw County Prosecutor’s Office provided researchers from the University of Michigan unfettered access to felony and misdemeanor files, making the project one of the most comprehensive empirical studies on prosecutorial decision-making in the nation. The study also traverses two prosecutorial administrations, as Prosecuting Attorney Eli Savit took office in 2021.

The research team was led by Professor J.J. Prescott and Grady Bridges of the University of Michigan Law School. Prescott is one of the nation’s top empirical criminal justice scholars. Bridges has years of experience collecting and analyzing Michigan criminal justice data and served as data administrator for Michigan’s Criminal Justice Policy Commission.

Previous analyses—including the 2020 Citizens for Racial Equity in Washtenaw (CREW) report—have indicated that Black residents in Washtenaw County are disproportionately likely to face criminal charges. Although the Transparency Project focused specifically on prosecutorial decision-making (and did not purport to reach any conclusions about other systems actors), the University of Michigan’s analysis found that these numeric disparities are largely “baked in” by the time cases arrive at the Prosecutor’s Office.

Controlling for factors such as the severity of a case, the researchers also identified small disparities in certain prosecutorial decisions and no evidence of disparities in others.

Specifically, the study concluded:

  • The prosecutor’s office was 0.7 percentage points more likely to authorize charges for defendants of color than for white defendants between 2017 and 2022. Though that disparity is marginally statistically significant, its statistical significance is driven by data from one year (2019).
  • Defendants of color were charged with crimes having maximum sentences 2.15 months longer than white defendants in similar circumstances, with statistically significant disparities that were larger in 2018 and 2020.
  • Among eligible defendants, people of color are less likely than white people to be designated as habitual offenders. A habitual offender designation means longer maximum sentences.
  • Defendants of color faced 0.05 more charges per case on average than white defendants in similar circumstances between 2017 and 2022.

The study also looked for evidence of racial disparities in whether defendants are admitted into diversion programs — which allow a defendant to avoid a criminal record upon completion of a plan. The study found no evidence of racial disparities into whether similarly situated defendants are admitted into two programs: the Prosecutor’s pre-plea diversion program and the Holmes Youthful Trainee Act.

Finally, the study sought to identify potential racial disparities in plea bargaining decisions. Data limitations precluded the research team from reaching robust conclusions about plea-bargaining practices. However, its preliminary plea bargaining analysis did not find evidence of racial disparities.

“The Prosecutor and his team were always vigilant about protecting people’s privacy, but the office also made sure we had access to every bit of information we asked about that might be relevant to measuring disparities,” said J.J. Prescott, the Henry King Ransom Professor at the University of Michigan Law School. “Throughout the entire process, the Prosecutor has been eager for unvarnished answers so the office can continue to improve. PTP’s assessment in Washtenaw County provides a clear roadmap for conducting similar audits throughout Michigan and the nation.”

“The comprehensive nature of this study also puts Washtenaw County and Michigan more generally on the map in terms of evidence-based evaluation of prosecutorial decision making,” Prescott added. “Our analysis improves on other studies that have explored racial disparities in prosecutorial decision-making. Most existing work focuses on specific types or classes of cases, or suffers from significant data limitations that make it hard to pinpoint the sources of disparities. Our evaluation is not without weaknesses, of course, but we use the ‘blind spots’ in data collection and management that we uncover to shine a bright light on the need for critical data infrastructure improvements. For this reason, this collaborative effort takes an important step toward the goal of measuring, understanding, and working to eliminate disparities in prosecutorial decision-making.”


“Consequences in the criminal legal system should be imposed because of what someone did, not because of who they are,” said Washtenaw County Prosecuting Attorney Eli Savit. “I’m grateful to the research team for taking an unflinching look at potential racial disparities in prosecution. I am also grateful to the ACLU for funding this project, allowing this work to be completed without taxpayer expenditure. The data from this report will inform our continuing efforts to promote equal justice in our system.”

“The researchers’ independent report, for me, confirms my observations that our assistant prosecutors charging and resolving cases are doing so in a manner consistent with fairness and justice, not based on the color of someone’s skin,” said Washtenaw County Chief Assistant Prosecutor Victoria Burton-Harris. “As a leader of this office, that’s important to me. I’m proud to stand by it, and I look forward to continued efforts to ensure transparency and equity in our system.”

“A critical step in beginning to address the racial disparities in the criminal legal system is for agencies to track, analyze, and make publicly available data at every stage of the criminal legal process,” said Loren Khogali, executive director of the Michigan ACLU. “We commend the Washtenaw County Prosecutor’s Office for taking a look in the proverbial mirror and contributing to a growing body of data-driven studies, which also show how our criminal legal system has an inequitable impact on people of color, especially Black people. This report adds to the imperative that agency leaders throughout Michigan, including police chiefs, prosecutors, judges, and court administrators, also hold themselves accountable by examining their part in our deeply flawed criminal legal system.”

The Prosecutor Transparency Project’s full 116-page report is available for the public to read at
https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=4680695. In addition, to promote data accessibility, Poverty Solutions at the University of Michigan has published a digestible, interactive digital report outlining the key takeaways from the analysis, which is available at https://myumi.ch/23NQ4.

Dr. Trevor Bechtel — who has led multiple projects designed to increase access to information — spearheaded that effort.

“Working on the Prosecutor Transparency Project has allowed us at Poverty Solutions to bring our commitment to data and accessibility and transparency to work understanding the criminal legal system,” said Bechtel, the strategic projects manager of Poverty Solutions’ Washtenaw County programs. “We are excited to continue working with the Prosecutor Savit’s office as we move towards release of a data dashboard on prosecution in our county.”

Next steps for the Prosecutor Transparency Project include the identification of trackable metrics to ensure equitable treatment in the justice system and the creation of an interactive “data dashboard” for the Prosecutor’s Office. Results will continue to be made available as they are completed.

Written and Published by University of Michigan's Poverty Solutions.