Study: Washtenaw County police 4x more likely to pursue charges against Black people

'Law enforcement agencies in Washtenaw County are over four times more likely to seek criminal charges against Black people than white people, according to a report released by the prosecutor's office.

The multi-year analysis of racial disparities in the county, the "Prosecutor Transparency Project," was released on Friday and conducted by the Washtenaw County Prosecutor’s Office, ACLU of Michigan, and University of Michigan.

"Certainly, when we hear these types of numbers it alarms most of the general public," said Civil Rights Activist Keyon Payton. "But the reality is, as African-Americans, we live this experience every day."

Payton is the founder of the Institute of Trauma and Economic Justice.

"In 2010, Michelle Alexander produced the book ‘The New Jim Crow’ – which we know has systemically impacted African-Americans with incarceration for many many generations, where, essentially, mass incarceration has become the new form of slavery," Peyton said. 

Researchers from U of M Law School carried out the groundwork in the latest report from Washtenaw County. Prosecutor Eli Savit says it's all about being open.

"I’m interested right now in letting the data speak for itself," Savit said. "I believe we need to be transparent, I believe we need to be honest about what’s going on in the system and where we see inequities that we can address."

The study looked at 35,000 cases files between 2017 and 2022. 

The report found that Black people appear in 49.9% of police requests for criminal charges during that time span, but make up only 12.2% of Washtenaw County residents. By comparison, white people appear in 47.8% of charging requests and make up 70% of the county’s population.

"Defendants of color were charged with crimes having maximum sentences 2.15 months longer than white defendants in similar circumstances between 2017 and 2022, with statistically significant disparities that are larger in 2018 and 2020," according to the report.

(Prosecutor Transparency Project by Washtenaw County Prosecutor’s Office)

"Now that we’ve identified some of the potential disparities in the system –that’s the next step–  to see are these disparities potentially explained by individual evidence in a particular case?" Savit said. "Or is there something else going on here?"

Black community activists say this study is a good start toward much-needed reform.

"I'm very happy that the prosecutor in Washtenaw County has published this transparent report, and I’m just hopeful that other prosecutors around the state will do the same," Payton said. "In fact, I think that Governor Whitmer ought to really declare a State of Emergency to address this issue so that all of our counties can really begin to collect the data and the facts around this issue."