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Just two weeks into his new role as a local prosecutor in Michigan, Eli Savit has already accomplished two of his many priorities: His office won’t pursue charges for consensual sex work among adults, nor cases involving the use, growth, or sale of “magic mushrooms.”
“Criminalization can lead to violence. Criminalization can lead to murder,” Savit, the prosecutor for Washtenaw County, told VICE News on Thursday about his office’s new policy regarding sex work. “And these are lessons that we’ve learned over and over again from, for example, the prohibition of alcohol and the war on drugs. Whenever you criminalize something, it takes place in the shadows. People are less likely to come forward to report adjacent harm. And people end up losing their lives.”
Savit took office January 1 and unveiled both policies relating to sex work and entheogenic plants—a category that can include psilocybin mushrooms and ayahuasca—this week. The drug reform was a relatively straightforward decision, since the Ann Arbor City Council effectively decriminalized the plants in September. But Thursday’s announcement that his office won’t pursue cases regarding consensual sex work sets his jurisdiction apart, even as progressive prosecutors like him gain prominence nationwide.
“We looked at the research, and we looked at the data, and we looked at what subject matter experts—and those who work directly with sex workers and with trafficked people—were telling us, which is that criminalization harms sex workers,” Savit said.
Savit’s office emphasized in its announcement Thursday that prosecutors will still pursue cases in which violence or sexual assault follows “a planned exchange of sex for money,” in addition to cases involving human trafficking, minors, and “other charges not covered by this policy.”
But allegations of consenting adults exchanging sex for money won’t be part of that. And if those previously prosecuted under such circumstances apply for expungement, the prosecutor’s office won’t contest it, either. That could be immensely meaningful for the populations often punished for engaging in sex work, including transgender people of color.
Savit noted that by avoiding charges over consensual sex work, his also office will be able to give vulnerable people the assurance that they can come forward with reports of sexual assault, physical assault, or trafficking, all without fear of prosecution.
It’s unclear if Savit’s wide-ranging sex work policy is the first of its kind, since other reform prosecutors have made efforts to avoid charging sex workers in recent years, too. But it’s certainly rare. David Alan Sklansky, a Stanford Law School professor who studies prosecutors, said in an email to VICE News that he couldn’t think of an announcement similar to Savit’s, though he acknowledged that doesn’t mean it’s never happened.
“I think the policy Savit has announced is another sign that the prosecutor movement is widening its ambitions: what it means to be a progressive prosecutor is changing; the bar is moving upwards,” Sklansky said.
Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner also asked prosecutors in his office to not charge sex workers with prostitution if they have fewer than two convictions, according to the public radio station WHYY. Chesa Boudin, a similarly progressive prosecutor leading San Francisco District Attorney’s Office, had said before he was elected in November 2019 that he would not prosecute people for offering or soliciting sex. And George Gascón, the new district attorney for Los Angeles, said he would not prosecute sex workers if elected in an interview with the Appeal, adding that San Francisco actually stopped charging sex workers around 2012, when he was in charge.
Savit, a former public school teacher and civil rights attorney, was elected on a progressive platform to serve a county of nearly 368,000 people that includes Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan. He also quickly eliminated cash bail—making his county the first jurisdiction in the state to do so, according to WDIV-TV, a Detroit NBC affiliate.
Savit said he ran for office in the first place because he had witnessed the “cascading adverse consequences of the criminal legal system on other parts of society, on education, housing, workforce development, and the like.” He wanted to build a justice system that prioritizes public safety in a “rehabilitative and restorative way,” he said.
To that end, his office has also partnered with the American Civil of Liberties Union of Michigan and the University of Michigan Law School to do a deep dive into his office’s files to uncover racial inequities in prosecutorial decisions.
“Eli Savit didn’t waste any time getting to work fulfilling promises made in his successful campaign to become Washtenaw County’s prosecutor,” Shelli Weisberg, legislative director at Michigan’s ACLU, wrote in a news release January 10. “In the process, despite just taking office January 1, he’s already begun setting a standard that local prosecutors across the state should follow.”