Oakland prosecutor stresses experience as challengers call for reform
Pontiac — Oakland County Prosecutor Jessica Cooper is being challenged by two candidates, one a former judge who resigned from the bench to oppose her in next week’s primary election.
Democratic voters will decide Tuesday between Cooper, herself a former judge who is seeking her fourth term as prosecutor, and Karen McDonald, a former Oakland County circuit judge who also worked as an assistant prosecutor for several years. The winner will face off in November against Lin Goetz, the lone Republican running for the office.
Cooper’s challengers both express a need for criminal justice reform but Cooper, 74, is running on her record of managing the office's 170-person staff and $23 million budget over the past 12 years. Cooper said her office has a record of getting violent criminals — including juveniles — off the street and keeping them behind bars.
“The system in Oakland County is working,” Cooper said. “For a county of 1,270,000, we now have one of the lowest crime rates in the country. All murders are devastating and tragic; we have had only eight murder cases thus far this year.
“The overall crime rate is down 34% and the juvenile petitions are down 63%,” she said. “I have worked hard to prevent crime and keep people, especially kids, out of the criminal justice system. I run a professional, efficient and extremely effective office and I want to make sure it continues that way.”
But McDonald, 50, faults Cooper for contributing to mass incarceration, refusing to participate in treatment courts or resentence juvenile lifers under a U.S. Supreme Court mandate. McDonald also alleges Cooper has publicly denied the existence of racial disparity in Oakland County.
As a judge, private practice attorney, and assistant prosecutor, McDonald said she “has seen how the current prosecutor’s office is failing Oakland County residents, especially poor people and people of color, and (am) dedicated to ending mass incarceration and creating a fairer system for all people.”
McDonald vows to focus on implementing “common sense criminal justice reform, participating in treatment courts, establishing new mental health courts, and finding smarter alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent, low-level offenders …”
McDonald was an assistant prosecutor from 1999 to 2004, leaving four years before Cooper took office. She was elected to the circuit bench in 2012, re-elected in 2018, and resigned in April 2019.
McDonald argues it's time for a fresh approach in the prosecutor's office.
“As one of the largest and wealthiest counties in the state, Oakland County should be ground zero for progressive criminal justice reform in Michigan," she said. "We have the resources and ability to affect real, lasting change in the justice system — we just need a prosecutor who is willing to put in the work.”
Cooper maintains she has accessed several alternative sentences, offered extensive training for her assistant prosecutors and said she was the “first prosecutor in the United States to train all the professional staff in a course known as Implicit Bias.”
“My life experience as a civil rights advocate and a civil rights attorney brings with it the commitment to fairness and change.
“Of course the criminal justice system can and should be improved but she (McDonald) is not the person to do it,” said Cooper. “During her tenure as a family court judge, she sent 21 civil individuals to jail for contempt of court.”
“My opponent worked for the (former Prosecutor David) Gorcyca administration, sporadically as an entry-level attorney 20 years ago,” Cooper said. “There are six levels in our office. She never made it past level two. She has never tried a murder or major felony and has no knowledge of complex forensic evidence. Moreover, she has absolutely no administrative experience.”
Cooper, who was Southfield’s chief judge, an Oakland County circuit judge and a Michigan Court of Appeals judge before running for prosecutor, said if McDonald was concerned about sentencing, she “should have remained in the judiciary.”
“… since it’s been many years since her limited experience as a low-level prosecutor, I think she forgot that it is judges who sentence individuals and not prosecutors,” Cooper said. “She simply does not have the credentials or experience to do this job.”
McDonald, for her part, says she has plenty of experience in several areas of the criminal justice system.
“With over 20 years of experience as a judge, private practice attorney, and assistant prosecutor, I am uniquely qualified to lead the prosecutor’s office with understanding of all areas of the courtroom," she said. "I have seen firsthand how the current Prosecutor’s Office is failing poor people and people of color, and it is my firm belief that progressive criminal justice reform can and will help create a fairer justice system for all Oakland County residents.”
McDonald has been endorsed by several high-profile Democratic officials, including Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy, Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist and state Attorney General Dana Nessel, as well as former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.
Cooper has been endorsed by the Michigan Association of Public Employees; the Michigan Association of Police; the Police Officers Association of Michigan; the Michigan Association of Firefighters; the Southeast Michigan Association of Police Chiefs, and the Oakland County Association of Police Chiefs
Waiting to find out which of the two Democrats will face her in November is Goetz, a Lake Orion attorney with 28 years of experience in criminal law both as an assistant prosecutor and a defense attorney. Goetz, 53, said she is running “to refocus the office back into giving victims a voice in the courtroom, especially in the area of domestic violence.”
Goetz said Cooper is not providing leadership in or outside the office and has failed to provide guidance to the community on how new laws will be addressed, such as when medical marijuana became legal.
Goetz said her goals include improving communication from the prosecutor’s office, improving improve employee morale on staff and enhancing training of assistant prosecutors. She also will add a public integrity unit “to ensure victims know the right individual is in custody for the crime that harmed them and increasing efficiency.”
“Finally, we will improve our use of treatment courts and diversion programs, which literally save lives,” she said.