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The State Gains Another Conviction Integrity Unit

When Eli Savit campaigned for Prosecuting Attorney of Washtenaw County, his platform contained the establishment of a Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) within his office. Mr. Savit made good on his promise, displaying a well thought out implementation, going beyond the vision of most CIUs. In fact, the official name is the “Conviction Integrity and Expungement Unit”. (CIEU) More on expungement in a minute. There are now around one hundred CIUs in the U.S.

In Mr. Savit’s letter to the Ways & Means Committee, requesting that the temporary Assistant Prosecuting Attorney (APA) of the CIEU be made a permanent position, he points out the efficiency of such an office. The prosecutor’s office “can avoid the procedural obstacles that can prevent a court from setting free a wrongfully convicted person”. Our entire court system is based on the adversarial model. It is a given that when a defense attorney appeals his client’s conviction that the prosecutor will fight it in court. So, when a CIU unit within the prosecutor’s office concludes that the county has put an innocent person in jail, it is a different ball game. The prosecuting attorney goes before the court in which the person was convicted and asks that the conviction be vacated, and the person be immediately released. It is no longer an adversarial situation. In every case we are aware of, the judge concurred and the person was exonerated.

Prosecutor Eli Savit

Savit points out that extrapolating the state’s statistics using 6% as an estimate of wrongfully convicted persons, that would mean there are near to 84 wrongfully convicted persons in prison from Washtenaw County alone. There is a sense of urgency in Savit’s tone that the status quo will not be accepted under his administration. And for those who are also concerned about the State throwing away taxpayers’ money, the estimate is that freeing these innocent people will save the state $3 million dollars each year.

Being exonerated is such an emotional high point, that few are prepared for the next hurdle they will face: the forces exerted against them when they seek to become healthy, productive citizens. When they try find a job, a background check reveals their criminal conviction but not their exoneration! Exonerated persons find themselves once again in the position of having to defend themselves for something they didn’t do. If readers of this blog believe that finding a good job is one of the more difficult challenges a person can face, how would you like to hunt for a job with a felony conviction showing up in your background check? This is where Savit’s CIU breaks the mold. He builds into the process the expungement of a person’s record of a crime they never should have been convicted of. Savit explains that “Unfortunately, Michigan’s Clean Slate laws are cumbersome, difficult to navigate, and require multiple steps, including background checks, fingerprinting, certified court records, an attorney usually costing at least $2,000, and an application for expungement.” Instead of the state taking responsibility of cleaning up the mess that they made, they put the responsibility on the person who was wrongfully convicted. Savit’s CIEU takes on that responsibility, cutting through the red tape and spending the money and person-hours necessary to give the person a clean record.

This makes Washtenaw County only the second jurisdiction in the State of Michigan offering free expungement services; the first being the City of Detroit. It is important to note here that there are Michigan laws that allow for expungement of records that have nothing to do with exonerations. There is such discrimination against people with criminal records that persons have difficulty not only in obtaining employment, but housing, as well. According to Safe & Just Michigan, it is so difficult and expensive to get your record expunged that 95% of eligible people in Michigan simply do not bother. At the time the memo was written, Oct 20th, 2021, the CIEU already had or was assisting 255 people in expunging their records and giving them a free slate.

But Savit has a vitally important third purpose of the CIEU. The CIEU is to train the prosecutors in his office so that fewer future wrongful convictions occur. They will be educated in things such as advances in forensic science, including so-called “science” that has been debunked, new understandings as to how interrogation techniques can cause false confessions, and advances in DNA analysis, just to mention a few.

I remember years ago when attending a class on wrongful convictions where the guest speaker, himself a past prosecutor, kept hammering the fundamental principle that is supposed to guide prosecutors in our system of government: prosecutors are to seek justice; not to win cases. Winning convictions creates a very tangible record that many prosecutors point to when running for reelection. It is unfortunate that choosing not to prosecute a person doesn't have that same quality, We applaud Eli Savit for understanding the scope of wrongful convictions today and creatively doing something about it.

People were excited when the State of Michigan created a State CIU, giving those outside of Wayne County access to a Conviction Integrity Unit. But it soon became evident that even a state-wide CIU with a limited budget cannot deal with the sheer volume of applications. What we need are more CIUs. Not every county can afford to create one and that is where the State CIU comes into play. But the volume of wrongful convictions can only be addressed when the bigger counties follow suit. First Wayne County, then Washtenaw, and Macomb and Oakland are in the works. Gail Pamukov of the Macomb County CIU has been on the job for 9 days now. And Prosecuting Attorney Karen MacDonald of Oakland County recently won bi-partisan support for the necessary funding. See Oakland County Plans to Launch Conviction Integrity Unit.

(Most of the information in this post was taken from a memo written by Eli Savit to the Ways and Means Committee on October 20, 2020.)


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