About our work

Our story

In Washtenaw County, we pride ourselves on our sense of community. — a patchwork of people and perspectives knitted together to make Washtenaw a vibrant, just, open society. A living embodiment of “out of many, one.” But without constant care, patchwork can fray leaving gaps and holes in need of repair.

In early 2021, community members and institutional leaders came together to form the Washtenaw Equity Partnership to study our county’s juvenile and adult criminal legal systems and whether there are gaps between how members of our community are treated in those systems based on their race. Through a generous grant from the Michigan Justice Fund, the Partnership hired the Vera Institute of Justice to support a community collaborative process to identify and address racial disparities across all components of the juvenile and adult criminal legal systems.

What’s unique about the Partnership is that, from the outset, it hasn’t been driven by one unit of government, a single funder, a solo nonprofit or any other single entity. The Founding Partners didn’t opt for the traditional, institutionally-driven approach. Instead, we envisioned it as a true partnership between the county’s criminal legal institutions, justice-impacted people and community organizations with everyone having an equal voice.

With the goal of having a balanced set of experiences and perspectives at the table, during the summer of 2021, the founding partners of the Washtenaw Equity Partnership met with our expert team from the Vera Institute of Justice to design a framework for the year-long racial equity community collaborative. As part of those discussions, we:

  • Identified community members, organizations, and government entities to provide input in reimagining Washtenaw’s criminal legal system through an equity lens and invited them to join the Working Group, the Partnership’s oversight body.
  • Developed a subcommittee structure to undertake research and analysis under the guidance of the Partnership.
  • Drafted Guiding Principles to frame the work of the Partnership and its subcommittees.

In the Fall of 2021, the Working Group turned to:

  • Identifying and finalizing subcommittee members’ participation and nominating subcommittee co-chairs. The Working Group paid special attention to incorporating a broad mix of people while still keeping the subcommittees’ size manageable so subcommittees could undertake substantive work. As a reflection of the Working Group’s commitment to a community-institutional partnership, the subcommittees were co-chaired by an institutional and a community representative.
  • Drafting subcommittee charges.
  • Developing ground rules for managing a complex group process that gave people with different experiences and varying levels of perceived power opportunities to contribute.
  • Creating a framework for a fund that would offer financial payments to lower-income community members.
  • Seeking funding for the financial payments.
  • Developing a website to keep our community up to date with the process.

2022: The Year of Research

Beginning in January 2022, the six subcommittees created by the Working Group (Prevention & Front End of the Criminal System, Court Process, Post-Sentencing & Reentry, Youth Justice & Schools, Behavioral Health and Data) rolled up their sleeves and got to work.  For more details about the subcommittees’ work, please see the Subcommittees Tab.

2023:  From Research to Recommendations to Reality

The Working Group overseeing the Washtenaw Equity Partnership had its last official meeting on January 19, 2023 to discuss the final edits to the Partnership’s report; it adopted the final report in early February.  The Vera Institute for Justice’s communication team will then go to work to put the report into a publishable format complete with graphics.  We anticipate that the Partnership report will be officially released in March. 

Understandably, the Partnership’s study spanning both the juvenile and adult criminal legal systems produced a broad scope of research and recommendations – 65 recommendations in all.  The Working Group organized the recommendations and findings into the following five strategies that it felt captured the range of topics addressed in the report: 

  • Strategy 1: Invest in Community, Prevention & Infrastructure. 
  • Strategy 2: Reduce Initial System Contact, Restructure Custody & Court Process.
  • Strategy 3: Restructure In-Custody Programming, Release, Reentry & Community Support. 
  • Strategy 4: Support Youth Development.
  • Strategy 5: Use Data to Ensure Equity, Measure Outcomes & Achieve Accountability. 

There are three things about the approach taken by the Partnership which are worth noting:

  1. The Partnership decided to look across Washtenaw’s juvenile and criminal legal systems to understand what factors likely contribute to racial disparities and become exacerbated as a person moves through those systems rather than looking at each individual institution. The Partnership’s move away from a siloed approach to understanding how disparities arise reflects the trend nationally to use integrated institutional criminal justice data to reform entire systems.
  2. The Partnership didn’t presume that involvement in the criminal legal system was the default mechanism to address out-of-the-norm behaviors.
  3. It understood that unattended needs or other factors occurring before someone comes into contact with the legal system may make it more likely that person will engage with the criminal legal system at some point and we, therefore, included recommendations that on their face don’t connect directly to the criminal legal system. Strategy 1 (Invest in Community, Prevention & Infrastructure) and Strategy 4 (Youth Development) are examples where the Partnership looked ‘upstream’, i.e., before system contact, to address issues that make people vulnerable to criminal system involvement. Strategy 1, in particular, is based on the belief that stability in a person’s life – housing stability, mental and physical health stability and economic stability – are keys to improving individual outcomes, reducing disparities and maintaining public safety.

Because the Partnership sunsets with the adoption of the report, the Working Group authorized Chair Alma Wheeler Smith to appoint a short-term “Bridge Team” to establish a framework for implementing the Partnership’s recommendations and conduct communications to engage the community about the Partnership’s report.  These two functions are important steps that will help ensure the report doesn’t sit on a shelf collecting dust.  

The Bridge Team can’t accomplish its charge in such a short time without expert support.   Chair Wheeler Smith and the Partnership received generous support from Washtenaw County and the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation to hire consultants with expertise in group facilitation, public engagement and communications strategy who will assist the Bridge Team in designing a process to achieve the two goals of its charge.  In addition to skilled consultants, the Bridge Team is seeking funding for a high-level staff person with content knowledge and a deep understanding of the Partnership process and the report to manage the Bridge Team’s work in the coming months.     

Other Washtenaw County Related Criminal Legal Studies of Interest 

People involved in the Partnership process will be keeping an eye out for four studies of different aspects of Washtenaw County’s criminal legal system that are likely to be published in the coming months: 

  • CJARS and SCAO Data Analysis of Washtenaw Trial Court.
    In 2021, then Chief Justice McCormack laid out the Court’s argument for data integrity and transparency in an opinion piece in which she noted “anecdotes don’t drive systemic improvements. Data does.”  Among the many benefits of sound data collection, she noted that, “Data can also be marshaled to help us identify and address racial inequities in our juvenile and criminal legal systems…While I applaud citizen groups like CREW for stepping into this void, transparency in government demands more from us — the courts. That’s why the State Court Administrative Office [SCAO, the MSC’s administrative arm] …is using data to understand where racial disparities exist through a unique collaboration with academic partners [UM’s Criminal Justice Administrative Records System or CJARS] and the Michigan Department of Corrections.”  The CJARS study, which began in the Fall of 2020, includes an analysis of Washtenaw County court data which, according to the SCAO Administrator who met with the WEP’s Data Subcommittee in September 2022, is due to be released anytime.
  • The Washtenaw County Prosecutor Transparency Project is an analysis “to uncover potential racial inequities through the collection and analysis of data regarding decisions made by the prosecutor’s office, including who is charged with a crime, the nature of the charge, the race of the individual charged, and other crucial information such as plea-bargaining conduct.”
  • EMU’s Southeast Michigan Criminal Justice Policy Research Project’s (SMART) an analysis of several years of AAPD traffic stop data in order to identify practices regarding citations, use of resources, and outcomes. 
  • UM School of Social Work’s Child & Adolescent Data Lab’s analysis of Washtenaw County Juvenile Court data is set to be released in the Spring of 2023.

Guiding Principles

The Washtenaw Equity Partnership will work toward meaningful change and outcomes that reflect these core principles. These principles are ideals we want to achieve in Washtenaw County. The WEP Working Group and all subcommittees should analyze how their work contributes to effecting these principles.

1. Equitable Outcomes

Fairness and equity for people who have been justice-impacted must be at the center of the juvenile and adult criminal legal systems, which must focus on outcomes to eliminate and prevent racial disparities, eliminate structural racism, and improve the human condition of residents of Washtenaw County.

2. Evidence-based Action

Quantitative and qualitative data must inform the development, use, and evaluation of policies and practices that eliminate racial disparities, improve outcomes for justice- impacted persons, and avoid unintended, harmful consequences. In addition to data from legal institutions, information should come from people who have been affected by the juvenile and adult criminal legal systems. Evidence-based action must be dynamic and ongoing, such that short-, medium- and long-term policy and practice improvements can be identified and implemented.

3. Accountability

Accountability and transparency must guide collection, analysis, and sharing of data and information across the system so institutions and the public can take evidence-based actions and easily measure progress toward reduced disparities and improved outcomes for people who have been justice-impacted.

4. Collaboration

Collaboration, coordination, and partnerships among legal institutions, non-governmental organizations, and the public must be sustained to promote shared learning and decision-making, and integrated solutions. Respect for each person’s expertise and lived experience will be a cornerstone of collaboration. Members of the partnership will contribute their expertise and hold each other accountable for making progress toward a shared vision of racial equity.

5. Innovation

Creative thinking, open-mindedness, and non-traditional approaches are encouraged in reimagining how Washtenaw County can eliminate racial disparities across the juvenile and adult criminal legal system and improve outcomes for people who have been affected by these systems.

6. Resources

The allocation of resources should reflect each of these principles and target the reinvestment of funds away from the criminal legal system, whenever possible, and towards services that address structural disadvantages, promote healthier outcomes, and reduce and prevent system involvement.

WEP's Building Blocks

The Washtenaw Equity Partnership to identify and address inequities in the county’s legal system didn’t just appear out of nowhere. There have been a series of building blocks in recent years that have contributed to the launch of the Partnership. We’ve created a timeline illustrating recent efforts to increase awareness about inequities and fairness in the legal system that have led us to this moment.


Friends of Restorative Justice

Friends of Restorative Justice of Washtenaw County undertakes a court watching study in Washtenaw County’s Juvenile Delinquency Court to “increase knowledge of the juvenile justice system in the county in order to have more meaningful discussions with members of that system regarding any areas that raised questions of efficacy or fairness to the victim, the offender and/or the community.”



One Community

The Washtenaw County Board adopted the One Community: Advancing Racial Equity initiative which included “moving from departmental efforts around decreasing health disparity, or housing inequality, or issues around policing, into a broader, system-wide approach to addressing racial equity.” Washtenaw’s Equity Policy recognizes that “Many current inequities are sustained by historical legacies, structures, and systems that repeat patterns of exclusion. Without the intentionality stated in this Policy, inequitable outcomes linked to race, socio-economic status, and other identities will persist.  The charge of the Policy is for all aspects of county government to address and implement strategies that target inequities that exist within the County organization, inclusive of all its services, resulting in equitable outcomes for all residents…”



Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration

The state launches the Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration. Lieutenant Governor Gilchrist and Chief Justice McCormack wrote: “The problems that face our criminal justice system are decades in the making. It results from a 1980s crime wave that has long since passed, which led to a massive correctional system and these outdated practices continue to plague our system…Now is the time to review our systems, consider reforms, and reinvest in our communities. We can expand safety, stability, and wellness throughout Michigan with treatment programs, workforce development, and services for crime victims and the incarcerated. We can support law enforcement to ensure that they receive the resources they need to implement policies that improve public safety and reduce recidivism.”

CMH Critical Intervention Mapping

Washtenaw County Commuity Mental Health (CMH) holds two-day critical intervention mapping and action planning workshop to develop an action plan for improving the community response to justice-involved youth with behavioral health and trauma conditions.



CREW Report

Citizens for Racial Equity in Washtenaw releases study of Washtenaw Circuit Court data to understand whether patterns of racial disparities exist in charging and sentencing.


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Prosecutor Transparency Project

Washtenaw County Prosecutor’s Office partners with Michigan Law, and Poverty Solutions at U-M in a ACLU funded project to:  (1) conduct a robust study into racial disparities in Washtenaw County’s legal system, and (2) the identification, and publication, of performance and equity-based metrics. 


Washtenaw County Prosecutor’s Office taps the Vera Institute of Justice to support an internal effort at data analysis, staff training, community engagement support, and policy expertise to expand its understanding of the criminal legal system’s history of racial injustice and guide the WCPO toward a more equitable future.

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Washtenaw Equity Partnership

The Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners led a series of conversations with the county’s criminal legal institutions and CREW resulting in an agreement to engage in an inclusive process to identify inequities in Washtenaw’s juvenile and adult criminal legal systems and address those inequities. The Washtenaw Equity Partnership formally began in September 2021 with the first meeting of the 30+ member Working Group. The Working Group is made up of a balanced mix of community organizations, justice impacted people and county criminal legal institutions. It will meet monthly and oversee the work of six subcommittees through the end of 2022.



In 2021, under the leadership of Chief Justice Bridget M. McCormack, the Michigan Supreme Court created the Michigan Judicial Council, the first-ever strategic planning process and strategic agenda for Michigan’s judicial system.  In August 2022, the MJC released its Strategic Agenda (2022-2025) which contains 5 strategic goals to address over the next four years and a companion document, the Operational Plan for 2022 – 2023 which lays steps to be taken by July 2023. One or more of the WEP subcommittees’ work is consistent with and advances four of the five goals from the Court’s Strategic Agenda.  The four goals are:

Strategic Goal #1:  COURT FUNDING & TECHNOLOGY INFRASTRUCTURE (pg. 10 of the Strategic Agenda)

Michigan’s judicial system needs a technology infrastructure that connects and integrates courts across the state. A unified and integrated technology platform (including case processing and document and records management systems) will enhance information sharing, promote consistent data collection, analysis, and reporting, and will improve judicial and administrative decision-making.


The judicial branch is committed to improving and expanding effective dispute and problem resolution practices. This includes improving pretrial practices, expanding services to people experiencing mental health and substance abuse issues, using evidence based and other effective problem resolution practices to achieve effective outcomes for youth, families, and others who use the courts, to name a few. The seven strategies to provide more effective problem resolution are:

  1. Implement operational efficiencies through technology and simplify court procedures.
  2. Increase consistency in staffing levels, resources, procedures, and scheduling.
  3. Expand the use of case management practices that help resolve cases expeditiously.
  4. Develop a comprehensive continuum of court and community services to effectively address mental/behavioral health and substance abuse and addiction issues.
  5. Establish methods for collaborating and providing needed services (e.g., housing, education, mental health, substance abuse and addiction, rehabilitation) across justice and social service systems.
  6. Collaborate with partners to expand the availability of justice and community resources across the state, particularly in rural areas. Continue to expand uses of alternative dispute resolution methods and options (e.g., mediation, online dispute resolution, etc.).
  7. Be a leader in implementing justice and judicial system reforms consistent with the recommendations of Michigan’s Task Forces and Commissions and other national leaders and studies.

Strategic Goal #3: RACIAL & SOCIAL EQUITY (pg. 15)

All people who interact with the judicial system will be treated equitably and with dignity and respect. The Michigan Judicial Branch will work to eliminate racial and social inequities across the entire justice system, including from initial contact, while cases are pending, and as people exit the system. All people, especially people of color and disenfranchised and marginalized groups, will have similar experiences; they will experience a justice system that is free from bias, equitable, consistent, and predictable.  Strategies for making Racial & Social Equity improvements include:

  1. Identify and study practices that may, or are known to, result in disparate treatment and share data to understand and educate about the magnitude and impacts of these practices.
  2. Eliminate practices that disadvantage specific groups and/or result in disparate treatment and outcomes; implement new practices that are just and equitable for all.
  3. Continue to improve and expand training and educational opportunities for judicial branch employees to build trust with all people, especially people of color and disenfranchised and marginalized groups, in collaboration with justice system and community partners.
  4. Build trust with all people, especially people of color and disenfranchised and marginalized groups, in collaboration with justice system and community partner
  5. Promote/advocate for diversity in justice system leaders, including judicial officers, prosecutors, law enforcement, etc. to ensure leaders & employees reflect the diversity in the communities they serve.
  6. Normalize conversations about racial and social equity across the judicial branch, with justice system and community partners, and within communities.
  7. Lead efforts to increase equity, consistency, and predictability within and across courts and with external partners.
  8. Implement consistent and predictable processes across all courts.  

Strategic Goal #4:  PUBLIC TRUST & UNDERSTANDING (pg. 17)

Remaining independent, being fair and impartial, responding to needs, being accountable for conduct and performance, and being transparent in the use of public resources are the bedrock for increasing understanding and building and maintaining the public’s trust and confidence.  Strategies for making improvements in public trust and understanding include:

  1. Expand public outreach and education to promote confidence in the judicial branch, and educate about civics, democracy, the rule of law, and court procedures and practices.
  2. Collaborate with justice system and community partners to educate about and build trust and confidence in the judicial branch.
  3. Build upon and strengthen court performance metrics and reporting (e.g., public dashboard, etc.).
  4. Increase transparency while also protecting the privacy of court participants.
  5. Continue to improve and expand training and educational opportunities for the judiciary and court employees on professionalism, civility, ethics, etc.
  6. Continually solicit and listen to public/ court user feedback.