Oakland County's new prosecutor highlights 'smarter solutions'

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News
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Marking her first 100 days as Oakland County prosecutor Monday, Karen McDonald highlighted priorities including juvenile justice, reducing racial disparities and increasing non-jail alternatives for nonviolent offenders.

Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald

McDonald made the statement during a virtual news conference to outline measures she has taken since taking office in January.

“In the 100 days since I was sworn in, I have reoriented my office’s priorities to focus on juvenile justice, reducing racial disparities, and alternatives to incarceration for low-level, nonviolent crimes," she said. "I am committed to implementing smarter solutions to achieve safer, more just communities for everyone in Oakland County."

“It’s a new day at the Oakland County Prosecutor’s Office,” McDonald said. “… The public wants reform.”

Toward that goal, McDonald said she has instructed her staff to take more of a role in how defendants are charged and prosecuted, with an emphasis on considering mental health, addiction, abuse and trauma. She wants her assistant prosecutors to use discretion in charging decisions and plea negotiations.

The harshest penalties are not necessarily the best ways to protect the public, said McDonald, explaining that she is discontinuing traditional practices of “charge-stacking” on offenders, including charging juveniles as adults. She wants juveniles kept separate from adult offenders and returned to their families and homes wherever possible.

McDonald, a former judge in Oakland County Circuit Court, said she has personally reviewed nearly two dozen “juvenile lifer” cases in which convicted offenders will be brought back to court for resentencing. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that juveniles charged and sentenced to life in prison have a constitutional right for amended sentences and parole consideration.

McDonald ticked off a number of new initiatives in her office: She transformed Oakland County’s drug unit to a trafficking unit, shifting its focus from prosecuting use and possession of drugs to the trafficking of humans and drugs.

She set up the county’s first hate crimes unit, designed to investigate and prosecute crimes including ethnic intimidation. Toward that effort McDonald also has established a racial justice community advisory council and formed a research partnership with the University of Michigan to assess her office’s efforts in confronting racial disparities in Oakland County.

Assistant prosecutors have been ordered to not request cash bond or oppose pretrial release in cases involving low-level, nonviolent crimes. Her assistants have also been instructed to participate in all bond decisions and actively involve diversion and treatment courts to not just punish but to “fix the problems.”

McDonald also worked to get assistant prosecutors at arraignments, something traditionally not done in Oakland County.

The county’s Board of Commissioners will consider a proposal next month to grant funding for a conviction integrity unit to “ensure claims of wrongful conviction are examined fairly and impartially,” she said.

McDonald has re-established relations with local, state and national organization, including the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan, and for the first time in 12 years, renewed training and professional development opportunities for the prosecutor's office's 160-member staff.

mmartindale@detroitnews.com

(248) 338-0319

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