Washtenaw County voters have a choice between a Democrat and a Libertarian in this year’s election for county prosecuting attorney – incumbent Brian Mackie and Justin Altman. There is no Republican in this race.
At a forum hosted by the League of Women Voters on Oct. 11, the candidates fielded a range of questions – covering basic biographical background, their approach to customer service, and their views on discretion. Discretion came up in several ways – regarding victimless crimes, sentencing, opposition to parole, and the role of successor judges in granting parole.
Altman is a recent law school graduate who passed the state bar exam in 2011. At the forum, he made his Libertarian values at least an implicit part of his response to several questions asked by the league moderator. He raised the specter of law enforcement officials getting special treatment from the prosecutor’s office. He also questioned whether a prosecutor should use the force of law against defendants who’ve committed victimless crimes.
The only example of victimless crimes Altman gave at the forum related to marijuana, and that led Mackie at one point to wonder what crimes Altman was actually talking about. Mackie said his office spent relatively little of its time with those types of offenses, and he characterized the sentencing for such matters as light. Mackie highlighted the child support orders that his office obtains for 500-600 children every year, and his office’s prosecution of serious crimes. He characterized prosecution as serious work “for serious people.”
Both candidates for county prosecutor alluded to the vice presidential debate – between Democrat Joe Biden and Republican Paul Ryan – that was taking place on the same evening. Mackie referred to the debate in order to make a point about relative importance: For many individuals – like victims of crime – the office of prosecuting attorney is more important than the office of vice president. Altman’s reference to the vice presidential debate was in the context of thanking the LWV for including him in the debate, noting that the vice presidential debate did not have a third-party voice represented.
Altman and Mackie have also given responses to five questions on the league’s Vote411.org website.
The office of county prosecutor handles all felonies and misdemeanors charged under state law. The office also is responsible for juvenile delinquency proceedings, terminations of parental rights in the case of child abuse and neglect, and mental health commitments. The elected position has a four-year term.
The Oct. 11 candidate forum was held at the studios of Community Television Network, and is available online via CTN’s video-on-demand service. Information on local elections can be found on the Washtenaw County clerk’s elections division website. To see a sample ballot for your precinct, visit the Secretary of State’s website. The Vote411.org website also includes a range of information on national, state and local candidates and ballot issues, and a “build my ballot” feature.
Both candidates had an opportunity to give a one-minute opening statement.
Brian Mackie: He began by thanking the League of Women Voters and Community Television Network for several years of educating voters – nothing could be more important than that work, he said.
He began his substantive remarks by saying, “I love my job as prosecuting attorney.” The case for his continuing in that office is made by the great, hard-working and ethical staff, he said, which is an outstanding group of public servants that he has assembled. As a team, they protect the rights of the accused, and they support and protect victims of crime. And they protect children in abuse and neglect proceedings. Every year they obtain child support orders for between 500 and 600 children in Washtenaw County. Mackie said that he and his staff worked diligently to help make this a just and safe community.
Justin Altman: He also began by thanking the league and CTN. He allowed that Mackie has made great strides in protecting and representing victims, and also in the family division of the office. But Altman is running for the position of county prosecutor because he contends that Mackie has somewhat of a “blind spot” with respect to “victimless crimes” that are being prosecuted aggressively in the county. Medical marijuana dispensaries are being threatened by an order from the state attorney general, he noted. But luckily the dispensaries have not been shut down, he said. That is one major issue on which he and Mackie would differ, he said. He concluded by thanking everyone and asking people to consider voting for him as prosecuting attorney.
What professional experiences have led you to seek the office of prosecuting attorney? Why do you feel that you are the best candidate for the position?
Brian Mackie: He began by saying that it’s a question of life experience. He’s been a prosecutor, and before that an assistant prosecutor, he said. Before that he was a defense attorney and practiced some civil law. His defense work included defending people charged with a variety of crimes. He noted that several of the assistant prosecutors in his office have also done defense work. As an assistant prosecutor, he tried every kind of case, he said. That included murder and criminal sexual misconduct cases. About 40% of the more than 200 felony cases that he tried as an assistant prosecutor were criminal sexual misconduct cases – which he characterized as some of the most hideous and worst cases that are seen. “I’ve done a good job as prosecuting attorney,” he concluded.
Justin Altman: While still in law school, he worked with the office of the Washtenaw County public defender, he said. He enjoyed working with criminal defendants – trying to make sure that justice was served. He also has a lot of personal experience with the philosophy of liberty, he said, noting that he is running on the Libertarian Party ticket. Part of that philosophy is the non-initiation of aggression. Currently, the government has the rule of law behind it, he said, to use force against “victimless criminals” – people who have not created a victim – and the government uses that power. As a defense attorney, he was able to “swat down” those attempted aggressions one by one, like a bullet from a gun, he said. As a county prosecutor, however, he would use the office and the excellent staff there, to stop shooting those bullets at victimless criminals in the first place.
Customer service is the business of government. Who do you see as your customers, and how can you serve them in the prosecutor’s office?
Justin Altman: The basic customers are all the people in the county, he said. Not everyone might use the office of the county prosecuting attorney on a regular basis, he allowed, but everyone expects the prosecution of violent criminals. And he would absolutely use the resources of the attorney’s office to go after those violent criminals to make sure that the community is safe.
More specifically, the prosecutor has customers in the form of the victims of crimes, he said. Resources that are currently devoted to the prosecution of victimless crimes could be redirected to protecting victims and making sure that whatever they’re faced with in court proceedings, they’re well represented, and that victims receive justice.
Brian Mackie: Customer service is absolutely crucial, he began. We have to remember who it is that we work for, he continued. Some people who call up say they pay his salary, and he allowed that it is absolutely true. Everybody in the county – all 347,806 people – are customers, Mackie said, and that includes not only victims of crime, but also those who are accused of crime.
The first line of defense for those who are accused of crime is the prosecutor, he said. In that way, the prosecutor functions as an important defense attorney. The prosecutor makes determinations about what charges, if any, should be brought. And in about 20-25% of the cases where charges are requested based on a police report, the prosecutor’s office denies those charges – because the prosecutor’s office doesn’t think the charges are appropriate, he said. Sometimes that decision could be based on an unconstitutional taking of a confession, or some other irregularity, Mackie explained. But the prosecutor’s office needs to be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt, before it will even charge somebody with a crime, he said.
Do you believe that truth-in-sentencing laws ought to be required to provide more prosecutorial and judicial discretion?
Brian Mackie: “Absolutely not,” Mackie stated. When you talk about sentencing, he said, that’s a very large issue. Despite what you hear, he said, the rate of sentencing to prison in Michigan is low. “Truth-in-sentencing” means that somebody who is sentenced to prison must do their minimum term, he explained. That is to say, there is truth in the sentencing. That’s unlike the old days when a judge and probation officer in the court had no idea what that sentence meant. If we think that sentences are too high, then we should lower them, he said. But truth-in-sentencing applies to a very small percentage of those who are convicted of crime, he noted. Truth in government at every level, including sentencing, is a must.
Justin Altman: He felt the truth-in-sentencing laws are trying to fix a problem, but missing the point. When people are sentenced to prison, they might be reformed within the stated sentencing time – but they might not be. Truth-in-sentencing laws make sure that they serve their sentence – but the laws do not focus on rehabilitation of the criminal or restitution for victims. Altman would like to see a system where people who are sentenced to crimes – if they can prove that they’ve been rehabilitated and made restitution to their victims – should be eligible for early release. But as a secondary concern, once people are sentenced, truth-in-sentencing laws should stay as they are, he concluded.
In what types of cases do you believe such enhanced discretion would be most warranted?
Justin Altman: He indicated that he would use discretion in all cases where there is no victim. If someone does not harm another person – even though they may have broken a nominal law on the books – it’s not a good use of the prosecutor’s resources or the court’s resources to actually bring that case to court and to seek fines, jail time, or prison time, he said. Instead, we should focus on making sure that people have the help they need, if they have serious problems, and making sure that we focus on using discretion in a negative sense – to bring the best charges that we can bring against those who are violent actors in our society.
Brian Mackie: Prosecutors and judges have tremendous discretion now, he noted. As to victimless crimes, the only victimless crime he’d heard mentioned so far involved marijuana – so he didn’t know what other crimes Altman was talking about. For those types of crimes, he characterized the sentencing as low, with opportunities to have no conviction. He characterized the criminal justice system as “not harsh in Michigan, and certainly not in Washtenaw County.”
Plea bargains are by far the largest detriment of prison sentences. What is your view of the appropriateness of incarceration versus community treatment programs for people arrested for victimless crimes?
Brian Mackie: He again noted that it’s important to know which victimless crimes are actually being talked about. Prison is a myth for many people, he said. Why does Michigan have such a high number of prisoners? It’s because Michigan is the most violent state in the Great Lakes region, Mackie said. Michigan has fewer crimes solved than any other state in the Great Lakes region. Michigan has fewer police officers per capita. Michigan has four of the most violent 10 cities in the United States, he said: Detroit, Flint, Saginaw and Pontiac.
We have a real crime problem – and that’s why prisons are crowded, Mackie said. The prison commitment rate in Michigan has crept up. Washtenaw County has traditionally been the second lowest sentencing county in the state, he noted. You have to murder, rape or rob somebody to go to prison. Or if it’s another kind of crime – like stealing cars continually – you have to be a career criminal to go to prison, he concluded.
Justin Altman: For victimless crimes, Altman did not feel that either one of those options – incarceration or community treatment – is appropriate. Forced treatment programs are demonstrably failing at rehabilitating people, he said. People don’t seek rehabilitation or succeed at it until they are ready, he said. He thinks that plea bargaining is an important tool to make sure that justice is served in the quickest, cheapest, most efficient way possible. But for the most part, for charges brought against someone who is a violent criminal or who is a career criminal, then they need to go to court – and as a prosecutor, you need to bring the best case that you can against them, he said. In court, the prosecutor needs to prove his case or the defendant needs to prove his. He did not think that people should be sentenced to prison by signing away their rights.
In Michigan, successor judges have veto power over the parole board on the parole of lifers. Do you favor proposed legislation that would end this veto power? [A successor judge is one who assumes responsibility for a case, if the trial judge dies, resigns, or leaves office for some other reason before making all judgments in the case.]
Justin Altman: He described it as an issue that he’s not entirely familiar with. He does think that judges should have a say in whether a prisoner should have parole granted. But it’s the people who are working with the prisoners – the parole board, prison staff, guards and warden – who have the best opportunity to tell whether any individual prisoner has been rehabilitated and should be released to society.
Brian Mackie: He opposes the legislation. Judges use prison as a last resort, he said. A sentence of life generally means you’ve committed a very serious offense – murder, generally. The successor judge, in his experience in Washtenaw County, takes the responsibility very seriously. They read everything available about the crime, and they read all the appellate material. They have access to anything in the prison records that they want. He thinks it’s appropriate for judges to use that discretion to look out for the interests of their community.
What do you see as your appropriate role in the parole process? When would you see prosecutorial intervention as warranted?
Brian Mackie: He said there’s a wide disparity of views on the topic. In Michigan, he felt that most prosecutors agree with him – and they only sparingly object to granting parole. There are counties where they object to every parole as a matter of course – and as a result, those counties are not listened to, Mackie contended. If his office objects, then it’s because they know the offender, the defense, and the victims, and there is a reason for it. His office has had tremendous success when they have objected, and they’ve made their case to the parole board for why somebody should not be granted parole. It’s used sparingly by his office, he said. It’s his office’s responsibly to review the list every month of who is being paroled and it’s passed around the office. Someone might remember who had the case, he said – noting that people tend to stay employed in the office a long, long time. The staff look at the case and decide if there’s something special about that person. Generally, if his office objects to the granting of parole, it’s about someone that his office knows will re-offend.
Justin Altman: He called Mackie’s answer very appropriate. He agreed that prosecutorial intervention should only come when there’s a firm belief that the person who is up for parole is going to re-offend and has not “learned their lesson.” It has to be clear and convincing evidence before that action is taken, he concluded.
Ask yourself the one question that you would have liked us to ask you.
Justin Altman: Altman wanted to be asked what his role is as prosecutor in keeping public officials accountable. A lot of cases are brought to court by the prosecutor’s office against people who are trying to hold their bosses accountable in public office, he said. There are also times when police officers get let off easy, he contended, when charges are not brought against them – possibly because they are police officers. He thinks everybody in public office should be first and foremost accountable to the people of the county, and the prosecutor’s office should not look the other way.
Brian Mackie: On hearing Altman’s response, Mackie was mildly animated: “My answer has changed in the last 60 seconds!” The question now, Mackie stated, is “What do I think of Mr. Altman’s answer?” He would agree with Altman that everybody should be treated the same, and everyone should be treated fairly. The accusation that some police officer has gotten a break because they are police officer “is ridiculous,” Mackie said. He said that police officers disagree with his decisions all the time. But in his office they never make decisions about charging someone or not because of friendship or animosity. His office does what it does, based on the law and the evidence, he said.
Each candidate had the opportunity to give a two-minute closing statement.
Brian Mackie: At the moment the forum was being broadcast, he observed, the candidates for vice president of the United States are debating the future of the country. And that is tremendously important, he allowed. But he assured everyone that there are people in Washtenaw County – especially victims of crime – for whom the prosecuting attorney can be paramount in their lives. The prosecutor’s office sees people on some of the very worst days of their lives. They are people who need tremendous support, and they’re people whose whole lives have been turned upside down. Providing leadership in law enforcement has been something that he’s always believed in and has done.
Prosecution in general is serious work, he said, for serious people. Dealing with so-called victimless crimes is not much of what the prosecutor’s office does, he said. The time-consuming cases are “the cases that you can’t get out of your head,” which involve rapes and murders and terrible assaults on people. Or abuse and neglect proceedings where sometimes the drastic step is taken of removing the child from a home away from their parents so that they can have a chance in life. He reiterated the fact that his office establishes paternity and orders child support payments for 500-600 children in Washtenaw County every year. One way he fights crime on a personal level is to promote quality preschool for children in Michigan. He’s built a good office, he said, with a great staff: “We’ve done good work for the people of this county.” And he deserves to continue in the office for that reason, he said.
Justin Altman: While Mackie had contended that the victimless crimes are a small portion of what the prosecutor’s office spends its time on, he felt that it’s still a waste of time – no matter how small it is. If you go to court on any day when trials and pre-trial hearings are being held, many of those cases are for victimless crimes, he contended. It’s a waste of resources that could be better spent going after the murderers and rapists. He disagreed with Mackie’s assessment of sentencing for victimless crimes, saying he did not feel it was light. When you charge those people, and you waste their resources and take money from them, it wastes their resources that could be spent helping them have a better life despite their problems. Prosecuting them simply compounds their problems, Altman said.
The bigger point, he said, is that he is running for prosecuting attorney as a Libertarian. He thanked the League of Women Voters for inviting him to the debate. He noted that there’s a debate currently going on between the vice presidential candidates [Democrat Joe Biden and Republican Paul Ryan] – and there is no third-party voice on stage for that debate. So he was honored to be there as a third-party candidate, and he hoped that people listening would consider him, even though they might typically vote Democrat or Republican. The changes he wants to make in the prosecutor’s office are small, but would be very impactful, he said. He doesn’t want to change anything about how the office goes about going after child support payments. He wants to change how violence is used by the prosecutor’s office in the name of law, to go after people who are not creating victims.
The Chronicle would not survive without regular voluntary subscriptions to support our coverage of local government – we hope you elect to subscribe. Click this link for details: Subscribe to The Chronicle. And if you’re already supporting us, please encourage your friends, neighbors and colleagues to help support The Chronicle, too!