McDonald aims to bring human-first approach to Oakland County prosecutor’s office

By: - April 14, 2021 5:30 am

Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald | Prosecutor’s office photo

A big shift is underway in Oakland County.

Karen McDonald, just 103 days into her role as county prosecutor, is making way for a new type of prosecutor’s office — one that she says values humanity and fairness more than it values obtaining a conviction.

McDonald is part of a growing wave of criminal justice reform-minded officials who are taking office in recent years describing their philosophy as an antidote to most of the country’s long-held “law and order” approach to the justice system. That movement acknowledges that a focus on harsher sentences, rather than providing resources and support for underlying issues that lead to crime, has led to mass incarceration and furthered systemic racial inequalities in the United States.

The state Legislature is also making a turn toward bipartisan criminal justice reforms in recent years.

“The role of the prosecutor cannot be to do whatever it takes to obtain a conviction. So long as you use that kind of measuring stick, we’re all in danger,” McDonald told the Advance on Friday. “… What I have brought to this office, and it has been very welcomed, is a new measuring stick.”

The changes McDonald has implemented do not only extend to the policies and perspective of the prosecutors while working on cases — they also encompass a radical culture shift within the office, which includes embracing individual differences, a push for inclusivity and an emphasis on asking tough new questions to challenge the old way of doing things. McDonald said that after 40 years of a much different office culture, her new approach initially came as a shock to everyone at the office but they are now “100% on board.”

“If you want people to follow you, then they have to believe in you. … And the thing I’m proudest of is that in 100 days, I feel like they believe in me,” she said.

Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald | Prosecutor’s office photo

McDonald is often grouped in with (also newly-elected) Washtenaw County Prosecutor Eli Savit as Michigan’s “progressive” prosecutors because of their approaches to criminal justice reform. But McDonald doesn’t fully embrace that label.

“You can call it progressive, you can call it new, you can call it unique, but it really is just about doing what makes sense and doing what’s fair,” McDonald said.

To mark her 100th day as county prosecutor Sunday, McDonald released a list of policy changes her office has taken up during that time. The list includes re-sentencing policies for juvenile lifers, transforming the county’s narcotics unit into a trafficking unit, enacting bail reform, addressing racial disparities and putting an emphasis on diversion programs and treatment courts.

McDonald, 50, had worked as a public school English teacher prior to attending Wayne State University Law School. She joined the Oakland County Prosecutor’s Office as an assistant prosecutor in 1998, then joined a local law firm during the early 2000s to specialize in civil and family law.

In 2012, McDonald clinched nearly 60% of the vote when she ran for an open, non-partisan seat as judge on the Oakland County Circuit Court. She ran unopposed for reelection and was elected to a second term in 2018, but stepped down in spring 2019 to run for Oakland County Prosecutor. Her run was endorsed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Attorney General Dana Nessel, Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy and more.

She then defeated longtime incumbent prosecutor Jessica Cooper in the 2020 Democratic primary before going on to beat Republican Lin Goetz in November.

The Advance also talked to McDonald on Friday about why she believes she has not received pushback from other county prosecutors despite her new approach, why she values speaking to prosecutors on both sides of the aisle, why she feels GOP Macomb County Prosecutor Peter Lucido’s anticipated inquiry of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s COVID-19 policies is “unfortunate” and more.

The following are excerpts from that interview:

Michigan Advance: Sunday marked your 100th day in office. What reforms and policy initiatives from your office are you most proud of accomplishing so far?

McDonald: I am most proud of the impact I’ve had on bringing a new perspective to the office, bringing a new voice to the office. Caring about people of color, both in our office and outside of our office. I established a Hate Crimes Unit, I established an equity team — to help us make the office just more enlightened about what these issues are, and care what they are. Up until I came, nobody even talked about that kind of stuff — and created a Racial Justice Advisory Council.

But I guess the most important thing is that I have started a dialogue and asked questions that have never been asked before. And it’s really exciting. It really is. I mean, I know a lot of people thought, ‘Oh, well, you know, that’s 40 years of a certain culture, how are you going to change it, and the assistant prosecutors are gonna push back.’ And I have been really surprised at how much my staff really wants to do the right thing. They want to do what’s fair, they want to do what’s just, they want to ask the difficult questions. And more importantly, they want to be given discretion and power to make decisions that are fair and just. And not just looking up in a book a certain policy or a certain, you know, looking at a person as just an object; ‘you did this, let’s look to the book, let’s charge whatever we can, ask for the harshest sentence.’ You know, they’re just like you and me. They want to do the right thing.

Michigan Advance: In that same vein, there has been a bipartisan push for criminal justice reform unfolding in Michigan, specifically in the Legislature, and it seems like we’re just now starting to see that wave extend to prosecutors, like you in Oakland County and Prosecutor Eli Savit in Washtenaw County. Could you speak to this, and do you feel like there has been a recent reimagining of the role of prosecutor?

McDonald: You can call it progressive, you can call it new, you can call it unique, but it really is just about doing what makes sense and doing what’s fair. All of us want to be safe, and all of us want to be treated fairly.

Michigan Advance: Could you specifically speak to how the role of prosecutor is being reimagined and looked at in a different sense now?

McDonald: Yeah, I think what we’ve learned, the data has shown — not just across the state and across the nation, and many years of data — that short periods of incarceration for nonviolent offenses, particularly those that involve a mental health component or a drug component, are not making us safer….  Instead, addressing those issues, so that they are not in the criminal justice system makes us safer. Pinpointing and laser focusing on our juveniles, who are either on the neglect and abuse docket or they’re charged with a crime as a juvenile, we know those kids have a really high risk of ending up in our prison systems. And so what we do and how we treat juveniles is critical in reducing the amount of people we actually have to prosecute.

And similarly, I think the other main thing with this wave of criminal justice reform is that the role of the prosecutor cannot be to do whatever it takes to obtain a conviction. So long as you use that kind of measuring stick, we’re all in danger, because we’re going to be sacrificing our constitutional rights. So what I have brought to this office, and it has been very welcomed, is a new measuring stick. And that is a measuring stick [is] we’re gonna reward you for being thoughtful, hardworking attorneys who do and seek the just and fair result at all times.

And sometimes that’s amending a charge. Sometimes, that’s going to trial and insisting this person be incarcerated because there’s a public safety threat. And sometimes it means dismissing a charge. But doing what’s just and fair is more important than winning. And I think that’s the real focus. Because 20 years ago I was in the prosecutor’s office. And the mentality at that time was, you just have to win, your measuring stick is how many convictions you have, how many jury trials you win, and how little amount of the time you actually, you know, negotiate a plea bargain.

As a result of that, we have amassed more people who are incarcerated per capita than any other country in the world. And also what we know is we violated a lot of individuals’ constitutional rights. So look, it’s not an easy job, because it’s shifting the conversation, but it’s also shifting a perspective for the prosecutor and what is their role. But the great thing about this is that the assistant prosecutors in my office, they’re 100% on board with that shift. They want to be evaluated and judged based on, did they do the right thing? Not their conviction rate.

Michigan Advance: Have you experienced a lot of pushback from other prosecutors in Michigan?

McDonald: No, I mean, I haven’t, and maybe that’s because I’m probably more moderate than Eli Savit and I took a little bit more time. And I don’t have blanket mandates, because I just don’t think that’s going to work and it’s just not my style.

I haven’t received pushback because I believe that I am going about things in the right way. Which is, I did not come in with swift policy changes. I did not do that. The first thing I did —  I met with, via Zoom, every single person employed at the prosecutor’s office before I took office. Not just attorneys, there were 100 of them, but then also the staff. So that’s another 60 people. And so the first thing I did was, I just listened. And I asked questions like, ‘What do you like about your job?’ ‘What do you think we’re doing well here, what do you think we could be doing better?’ 

…And I’m not saying that there hasn’t been some resistance, because you’re talking about people who have done things a certain way for over 40 years. But if we set aside our humility and we really ask people, and we’re open to feedback about what they think, and we’re not afraid to be challenged in what we think, then we arrive at a place together. And I’m really proud that we really have arrived at a place together. … And we bring different things to the table, and we bring different things to our cases in the way we approach victims and witnesses and defendants. So I’m not afraid to have those conversations.

And a lot of the people surrounding me sometimes are just like, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe you talked to her about what it’s like being Black in the office.’ And again, I was like, well, she knows she’s Black. And we have to be very forthright about it. If I don’t have the courage to say, ‘how is that? How has that been for you? And what can we do better?’ — then what am I doing there? I’m not gonna really make it better.

Michigan Advance: So it’s also an office cultural shift?

McDonald: It’s a huge office cultural shift. And I really paid attention to that. And that’s something maybe the public doesn’t really understand. But if you want people to follow you, then they have to believe in you. … And the thing I’m proudest of is that in 100 days, I feel like they believe in me. And so we might not always agree about everything, but for the most part, we all are working towards the same goal. And that is [that] we want to do the right thing.

Michigan Advance: Are you in touch with other progressive prosecutors, or any other prosecutors across the country in terms of developing policies and whatnot? 

McDonald: Yes, I’m in touch with a very diverse set of prosecutors, and that’s intentional. I have a lot of conversations with progressive prosecutors, but I also have a lot of conversations with people who aren’t, quote, ‘progressive.’ Just a couple days ago, I was on the phone with somebody who was not of the same political persuasion. And all I was doing was asking questions. That’s just kind of how I approach things. … And when I sit with members of law enforcement who don’t necessarily think that some of the policies that I’m proposing are necessary, when you provide data, when you provide examples, you get buy-in. We just partnered with the University of Michigan to analyze data about who has been charged in Oakland County, and where they come from and what ethnicity, and what kind of sentences [do they receive], comparatively. That’s gonna be a really tough thing, I think, to digest when those results are produced, but I think it’s necessary.

Michigan Advance: What else do you think still needs to be done as a whole in Michigan regarding criminal justice reform?

McDonald: I think we need better tools to deal with juveniles who are at risk. And the second thing, which might even be the first, is we desperately need resources for people who are suffering from mental illness and need treatment. [The resources] just don’t exist. They don’t exist. And I consider it a failure that we are housing people in the Oakland County Jail purely because they have a mental health issue that has not been treated. And I’m not alone in that, and that is not partisan. You know, the sheriff agrees with me, the legislators agree with me, the governor agrees with me. We need resources. … I think it’s now time to try to do something about it because I can’t, in good conscience, prosecute people and send them to jail when I know that what they really need [is] mental health treatment.

Michigan Advance: As you know, Macomb County Prosecutor Peter Lucido recently announced that his office is taking public tips for a criminal case he plans to potentially build against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer over COVID-19 nursing home policies. I know you’ve remarked on this before, but since you’re right next door in Oakland County, I’d like to hear your thoughts on that and the ethics of that situation, from your viewpoint.

McDonald: It’s not the prosecutor’s role to encourage people to come to their office and tell them about crimes that have been committed. That’s law enforcement’s job. We get a lot of emails and phone calls a week, anywhere from 20 to 100, for various concerns. And when it involves a crime, we immediately direct them to law enforcement. Law enforcement investigates crime; the prosecutor’s office assesses the evidence that law enforcement brings to us and we decide whether or not to charge a crime. There are situations where once we’ve charged, further investigation needs to be completed, but I’m not in the business of trying to drum up more cases. That’s not my job.

My job is to evaluate the cases that the police bring to me. Really upsetting is we have a moment where our neglect petitions are down by 50%. And we know that’s not because neglect and abuse is down by 50%. It’s because kids aren’t in school. Violent crime is an all-time high. And I believe that, as a county prosecutor, that has to be our first priority. So the thought that there is a prosecutor that’s more focused on trying to figure out a way to make the governor look bad, you know, in cahoots with the Legislature — it’s unfortunate, and that’s not our job.


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Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins

Laina G. Stebbins is a former Michigan Advance reporter. A lifelong Michigander, she is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as Founding Editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service.