Meet the Wayne County prosecutor candidate promising to reform regional criminal justice

July 09, 2020, 10:45 PM

Victoria Burton-Harris: "What are we doing here, folks?" (Photo: Facebook)

The author is a Detroit freelancer.

By Tom Perkins

Last month, the Detroit Police Department made national headlines when its controversial facial recognition software misidentified a Black man, later wrongfully arrested for allegedly stealing watches from Shinola. A police officer had asked a Shinola employee who wasn’t present the day of the crime to match the suspect’s face to a grainy image. 

But police didn’t act alone. Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy’s office signed the arrest warrant despite what appeared to be grossly insufficient evidence. Though Worthy later conceded the warrant was a mistake and violated her office’s standard, the situation is nothing new — Wayne County leads the state in wrongful convictions.

Detroit civil rights attorney Victoria Burton-Harris, 33, who's challenging Worthy for the elected office in the Aug. 4 primary, seized on the blunder and highlighted what she called a pattern of “charge now, investigate later.” 

“The charges were dismissed because they didn’t have sufficient corroborating evidence, and if they didn’t have that, then what are we doing here, folks?” she asked.

In the midst of nationwide calls for criminal justice and police reform, and at a time when protestors took to the streets for weeks and burned police stations to the ground to emphasize that point, Burton-Harris is proposing sweeping changes that would not only increase police oversight but transform the county’s criminal justice system. In her view, it disproportionately packs the jail with low income Black residents and fails to keep residents safe. 

Worthy, a 16-year incumbent, is “tough on crime” but “not smart on crime,” Burton said. 

By contrast, she promises, her office would enact progressive policies that would divert low level offenders from the criminal justice system while attempting to be proactive in preventing crime.

Incumbent Kym Worthy

That means ending cash bail for most charges, increasing police-misconduct prosecutions, limiting civil asset forfeiture, implementing a restorative justice program that gives offenders a chance to redeem themselves, expanding a unit that investigates wrongful convictions, expunging marijuana-related crimes and holding environmental polluters accountable. 

Burton-Harris said her office would reduce the Wayne County Jail population by avoiding mandatory minimum jail and prison sentences, ending prosecutions for small drug possessions, and consistently sending drug users or those with mental health issues to treatment instead of jail. 

She would also stop incarcerating people for “crimes of poverty” like loitering while homeless, driving with no insurance or an inability to pay court fines.  

Burton-Harris acknowledged the challenge in unseating a strong incumbent who’s part of the county’s political establishment. But she noted that a wave of dozens of district attorney reform candidates in cities like Philadelphia, San Francisco, Portland, Chicago and smaller towns throughout the country in recent years have run on similar progressive ideas and ousted incumbents

Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont (DepositPhotos)

Burton-Harris, whose policies have earned endorsements from national figures like Bernie Sanders, John Legend and DNC Black Caucus Chair Virgie Rollins, said those prosecutors inspired her because they’re looking at new ways to approach the office.

“They’re pushing people away from the system, not working to bring in as many people as possible,” Burton-Harris said. “[They] understand that jails and prisons aren’t what keep communities safe.” 

‘Crimes of poverty’

Burton-Harris, a Detroiter, says she was raised in Flint by a single mother, her church and neighbors. She earned her law degree from Wayne State University and  characterizes herself as a “people’s lawyer” who has handled a range of high profile civil rights cases. She is married to a Detroit public defender and they have a two-year-old son.  

She was part of the legal team that defended a black Detroit man arrested for “gardening while black;” represented Siwatu Salama Ra, a young black activist arrested for using a gun to defend herself from an attacker; and defended a man who shot at officers who he mistook for burglars. 

She said her background gives her a perspective of all sides of the criminal justice system, and she’s focused on how poverty motivates crime. 

“When you don't dig beneath the surface and all you have is the experience of a lifelong prosecutor who’s used to putting people in jail and prison and focused solely on punishment, then you miss the bigger issues,” Burton-Harris said. “You miss that poverty and lack of resources are the underlying reasons why people commit these crimes.”

Detroit is the nation’s poorest big city and filling Wayne County’s jail with residents who can’t pay fees isn’t effective in reducing crime, she said. About half of all of those housed at the jail daily are awaiting pre-trial because they can’t afford bail, and another 14% are in for minor misdemeanors like driving without insurance or on a suspended license, according to a Vera Institute report. 

“The test should be — are you a danger to the public?” Burton-Harris said.

Jailing for low level offenses creates a domino effect, she added. Misdemeanor charges can cause low-income motorists to lose their license, incur high court fees and lose jobs. 

In a statement to Deadline Detroit, Worthy’s spokesperson touted the county’s current diversionary programs and Worthy’s decision to stop prosecuting for some drug charges. She also highlighted the elimination of a backlog of rape kits, and Worthy’s prosecution of some officers who committed crimes. 

“Prosecutor Worthy has been ahead of the curve when it comes to implementing progressive policies and holding public officials accountable and much of the current reforms are efforts that she undertook years ago,” she said. 

But Burton-Harris charged that many of the programs are ineffective or don’t go far enough. She said she would create a public integrity unit to prosecute officers accused of wrongdoing and publish a list of names of officers who lie on the stand. 

The county’s current “rigid” mental health court program only grants mentally ill first offenders the opportunity to seek treatment instead of going to jail, Burton-Harris said, and she would expand it to include repeat offenders.

While Worthy’s office highlighted 19 exonerations won by the county’s wrongful conviction unit, Burton-Harris said the unit is understaffed and faces a backlog of 1,000 cases. Her office would increase the unit’s staffing levels and give it more autonomy “to bring more innocent people home.” 

‘Ready for reform’

It remains to be seen if such progressive ideas fly with older conservative voters in Detroit and suburban cities. Burton-Harris said Wayne County residents are frustrated with the disproportionate number of black men “chewed up” by the criminal justice system, and her message has found a warm reception at Black Lives Matter protests that she’s joined in downtown Detroit and Livonia. 

“I’ve been told by voters who don’t look like me from the suburbs (that) ‘You are what we’ve been waiting on … we love what you stand for,’” she added. 

Virgil Smith Sr., a former chief judge at the Third Circuit Court in Wayne County who’s backing Burton-Harris, acknowledged that it may be a challenge to win over conservative, “tough on crime” voters. But he said the conservative viewpoint is “offset by the larger community that’s starting to understand that justice is not equal, and everyone is not treated the same.” 

“A majority of the community has started to understand how it is to be an African-American male stopped by police — your life is on the line every time you’re stopped by police,” said Smith, whose son is embroiled in a dispute with Worthy. “We teach that to our children.”

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