6 ways Victoria Burton-Harris would reform crimina...

6 ways Victoria Burton-Harris would reform criminal justice if elected Wayne County Prosecutor

The progressive prosecutorial candidate calls for an end to cash bail, rubber-stamped warrants, release of juvenile lifers and more reforms she say she'd put in place in her first 90 days in office.

Victoria Burton-Harris

For the first time since she was elected in 2004, Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy faces a significant challenger in Victoria Burton-Harris, an avowed progressive and defense attorney running on a platform to reform the criminal justice system with a strong emphasis on ending mass incarceration and eliminating so-called “juvenile lifers” — positions that contrast with Worthy’s priorities and strong focus on victims’ rights during her time in office.

Burton-Harris’ candidacy dovetails with a national movement to place progressive prosecutors in cities across the country. She’s received endorsements from former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, singer John Legend and Detroit City Council President Pro Tem Mary Sheffield.

With no Republican challenger to face in the general election, the Wayne County prosecutor race will be unofficially decided during the Aug. 4 primary. Worthy has been lauded for her efforts to address the city’s rape kit backlog, her role in taking down former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and for bringing cases over the deaths of Renisha McBride and Aiyana Stanley-Jones to trial. Two years ago she launched the Conviction Integrity Unit to review claims of innocence; the unit processes approximately 500 claims per year. She has the endorsement of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the Detroit News. She’s also come under fire by some for her reticence to review juvenile lifer convictions (minor offenders sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole) and for a high rate of overturned cases in Wayne County — including high profile cases such as those of Lamarr Monson and Davontae Sanford.

Burton-Harris argues that the Wayne County Prosecutor’s office has the ability to make significant inroads on criminal justice reform on its own, independent of the state legislature or local police departments. Her platform includes 6 policy changes that she says could implement right away: ending cash bail, no more “rubber-stamping” warrants (to avoid wrongful convictions), automatically expunging marijuana convictions, reviewing all juvenile lifer cases, shutting down asset forfeiture programs and giving the Conviction Integrity Unit more autonomy. 

Detour spoke with Burton-Harris to find out what her first 90 days would look like if elected, her thoughts on Worthy’s record and what suburban voters should know about her agenda.

This interview was edited for length & clarity.

Detour: What is the first thing you will implement if elected Wayne County Prosecutor?

Burton-Harris: On January 1, a new written policy will be handed to all prosecutors in the office regarding our cash bail system. Specifically, it will state that cash bail won’t be sought by prosecutors for low-level, non-violent offenses — for both misdemeanors and felonies. 

Research has shown that cash bail is not needed to ensure someone will return to court, nor is it required in order to keep the community safe. When people are given personal bonds, meaning that they don’t pay any money to be released for these offenses, 87% of them show back up to court, and 89% do not reoffend and get rearrested. So this idea that you need cash bail to keep you safe from criminals is totally bogus. All we’re doing is holding poor people in the county jail, simply because they can’t afford to buy their freedom. 

I’ve gotten pushback from a lot of conservative folks. No, I’m not a socialist. No, I’m not gonna let “bad criminals” get out and hurt the community. What I am going to do is make sure that people who are held on low-level nonviolent offenses — such as driving without a license or without insurance, or being engaged in recreational drugs or having a drug addiction —  are not being held in the county jail on a high cash bail.

Wayne County prosecutors will be required to explain how keeping the person in jail is the most beneficial for the accused and the community at large, and if you can’t articulate that, then you don’t have a sufficient basis for asking for cash bail. Now if you’re talking about a rape or a murder, or violent assaults, then yes, cash bail will be sought in those instances, after it has been determined that there is no other alternatives available to keep the community safe. 

What are some of the alternatives to cash bail?

One alternative is staying in communication with the court, and in communication with someone in the community that a person can be “entrusted” to. That’s a part of the existing court rule on pretrial release (MCR 6.106) that the 36th District Court and prosecutors routinely ignore, and it’s the subject of a current lawsuit filed by the ACLU of MIchigan.

How do you plan to reduce wrongful convictions?

I’m coming in the door with a written policy for the Warrant Division that says no warrants will be signed or authorized until a full investigation is complete, meaning that we will not simply be using police reports before we authorize warrant requests. That’s how Wayne County has become the number one county leading in the state for wrongful convictions. We have more wrongful convictions than all other counties combined. 

Worthy says that’s because we charge more cases. Well, that’s the problem. These are innocent people you’re bringing into the system. So why don’t you backtrack and slow down, don’t waste so much of your budget, don’t waste tax dollars, and instead say we need to see body cam footage, we need to see in-car video, we need to see dashcam footage, we need to review all of the evidence before we can determine if a crime has actually been committed. What we’re doing now is just looking at police reports, rubber-stamping warrants, and then we get into the courtroom and we either convict the wrong person or we have to dismiss the charges because we have insufficient evidence to move forward, and that all could have been avoided. 

My opponent says we’re addressing the wrongful convictions with the Conviction Integrity Unit. But you’re just putting a bandaid on the problem, you’re not addressing the root cause of the problem, which is how many cases you bring into the system wrongfully to begin with.

What about marijuana convictions?

I’m going to work with a company called Code for America, and for $15,000, I am going to start doing automatic expungement for Wayne County marijuana convictions, using cell phone data and a driver driver’s license database. (Editor’s note: Code for America created the Clear My Record tool to clear the records of thousands of California residents.) We will not wait for automatic expungement to take hold statewide.

The Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional in 2012, and Worthy has faced questions about how she is resentencing those prisoners. You’ve made it clear you’re opposed to life sentences for juveniles. How will you work toward releasing “juvenile lifers”?

I’m going to review all of the juvenile lifers, and I’m going to work to bring them all home. My opponent has recently said that she is now in favor of reviewing a lot of those cases, that she’s had a change of heart, which is wonderful, but you know we just recently lost one Mr. William Garrison, because she took her sweet time bringing him home and he died of COVID. 

So, not much time to waste, not much time to have a change of heart. It needs to be done like yesterday. So we’re going to be reviewing all of those cases. We’re not going to be paying for resentencing for a term of years that almost equates to life. We are going handle to resentencing in a way that allows them to come home and have time served. 

I am a staunch advocate for not sentencing them to death by incarceration, because that’s exactly what a juvenile life without the possibility of parole sentence is —  it’s death by incarceration, We don’t have the death penalty in Michigan, we shouldn’t have death by incarceration in Michigan. The mind is not developed fully until age 24 or 25, and so if you add trauma on top of that, it can even extend upward to 27 or 28. We know that if you take a lot of kids who have unaddressed trauma, which is one of the underlying causes of crime, these are not people that we should be throwing away for the rest of their lives. 

I believe you can age out of crime, and most of the juvenile lifers that I have come across, I would have as my neighbors. They are good human beings who have a tremendous amount of remorse and want an opportunity to have a life again. It’s just unfathomable that we would have a prosecutor who doesn’t believe in protecting children.

What other structural or operational changes do you hope to make within the prosecutor’s office?

I will be closing down two units in the prosecutor’s office and dividing funds two ways. I’m going to be shutting down the Vehicle Seizure Unit and the Asset Forfeiture Unit, and I’m going to divert those funds. 

I want to do all that I can to create safe and just communities. There is no justice in taking from a community when your job is to help build it up. So if those are the two units that are harming folks — largely Black and brown folks and poor folks — taking their property when oftentimes they haven’t even been convicted of a crime. That’s a crime in and of itself, and I want it stopped. 

Half of the funds for those units will go to bringing in more support for the Conviction Integrity Unit. Not only will we be expanding it so that we don’t have over a thousand cases pending for review of people who say that they were wrongfully imprisoned, but I’m also going to give Valerie Newman (Director of Wayne County’s Conviction Integrity Unit) more power to bring home more people. Right now, Kym Worthy has to approve of who comes home through that unit after they’ve done the work to show that someone was wrongfully convicted. I don’t need to have that. If Valerie Newman says that someone was wrongfully convicted, and there’s evidence to clearly show that, I’m not going to stand in the way and say no. I’m giving her full authority to do her job.

The other half of that funding will be diverted to put social workers on a rotating basis in our schools, so that we can close the school-to-prison pipeline. We have more police officers than social workers in our schools right now, and it’s a funding issue. And so I will help to make sure that we don’t criminalize our children and are working to address trauma. We know kids act out when they don’t have food in their stomachs, when they don’t have clean clothes, when they don’t have a parent at home that’s assisting them with their needs. And so I want to make sure that my office is doing all that we can, so that we keep these babies in school and not send them down to the Lincoln Hall of Justice.

Some are saying that while you may be able to prevail in the city, you’re not likely to win over suburban voters. What should suburban voters know about you and your platform?

They should know that I am not going to be soft on crime.Instead of responding with punitive measures — because that has not worked — I’m working to make their communities even more safe by focusing on intervention and prevention and getting to the root causes of crime, so that people don’t continue to cycle through this system, and I don’t waste their taxpayer dollars. 

Suburban voters need to know that right now their tax dollars are being squandered, not once, not twice, but three times. Once when Kim Worthy wrongfully prosecutes innocent people and doesn’t deliver justice to crime victims when she gets it wrong; then again when she wastes their tax dollars when she fights the relief of innocent and wrongfully convicted people at the appellate stage, and finally a third time when she feeds them through the Conviction Integrity Unit, and has them just sitting there waiting to have their cases reviewed.

Folks in the suburbs need to know that I’m not going to lock up their sons and daughters for drug use in the opioid crisis, and I’m going to fight for them to get the help that they need. Because those are the folks that are going to have to put their homes up for sale for high cash bail if they get locked up in the system now, because drug use is criminalized and not seen as the public health crisis that it is.

What other races do you have your eye on right now?

I’m watching the Oakland County and Washtenaw County Prosecutor races. I am rooting for Eli Savit in Washtenaw County. We have a lot of the same criminal justice reform organizations backing both of us, and Bernie Sanders and John Legend endorsed both of us. Survivors Speak is an organization of crime victims and survivors, they’re supporting both of us. These are folks who have been touched by the criminal justice system as victims and are supporting new, fresh energy and faces in the prosecutor’s office because they don’t feel like they’ve gotten justice.

I’m also looking at the Prosecutor race in Oakland County between Karen McDonald and Jessica Cooper, Karen McDonald and I have some of the same folks supporting us through Michigan Liberation. They have worked a long time for prosecutor accountability, and they’re wanting to replace Jessica Cooper. Oakland County typically has been more of a county that favors a tough-on-crime, as opposed to a smart-on-crime, approach — so I’m curious to see what will happen.

Nina Misuraca Ignaczak is a contributing editor for Detour Detroit. She is the founder and executive editor of Planet Detroit, a digital media startup that tells Detroit’s environmental stories while building a community of engaged readers who are informed and empowered to act personally and publicly. She is an award-winning freelance journalist who writes, edits and produces stories about the environment, place and identity. Her recent work has been published by Detour Detroit, Belt Magazine, HuffPost, Detroit Free Press, WDET, Crains Detroit Business, Business Insider, Curbed Detroit and Model D. Prior to her career in journalism, she worked in urban planning in the local government and nonprofit sectors. She has a Master of Science in Natural Resource Ecology and a Bachelor of Science in Biology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Twitter: @ninaignaczak