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Washtenaw County Prosecutor’s office creates new Economic Justice Unit

Washtenaw County Courthouse
Charles W. Chapman
Wikimedia Commons / http://bit.ly/1xMszCg

The Washtenaw County Prosecutor’s office announced a new Economic Justice Unit that will focus on wage theft, employee misclassification, labor trafficking, and consumer scams and fraud.

The Public Rights Fellowship will fund the unit for two years, which means it’s not permanent as of now, according to Washtenaw County Prosecuting Attorney Eli Savit.

“I hope and expect that over the initial two year period that this new unit will demonstrate its value and that we'll be at a point where we can have conversations around making the unit permanent or sustaining its work in some way after the initial two year period,” Savit said.

Todd Pierce-Ryan is the sole member and leader of the unit. He is the Public Rights Fellow placed in Washtenaw County. The Public Rights Fellowship places attorneys into government law offices for two years “to work on a range of civil rights, economic justice, and environmental justice issues that directly impact vulnerable populations locally and across the country.”

Savit said the unit is “folded into the day to day functioning” of the office. He said Pierce-Ryan is working with other attorneys and units for certain cases and that he anticipates cross assigning attorneys to cases pertaining to the Economic Justice Unit.

“The fact that an employer, for example, is stealing money from you, or a fraudster is stealing money from a consumer is something that absolutely needs to be addressed,” Savit said. “And quite frequently, a lot of these crimes and bad actions, they end up targeting some of the most vulnerable folks in our community. So when we're focusing on economic harm, it really is just a parcel of our desire to focus on all types of harm in the community, and hold those who perpetrate them accountable.”

Bridgette Carr is the Founding Director of the Human Trafficking Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School, one of several collaborating groups. She said local and state governments often see labor trafficking cases as a job for the federal level.

“My hope is that this unit can be a model for other units nationally to say here's how you, at the local level, really can serve labor trafficking survivors,” Carr said.

Carr said there isn’t good data available about the prevalence of sex or labor trafficking at the local, state and national level. But she said that one of the biggest obstacles faced by labor trafficking victims is that many don’t believe it happens in their own community.

“For us to truly acknowledge labor trafficking, it means folks like you and I have to acknowledge that many of the goods and services that we purchase, and that we live on (and) rely on are created through exploited labor,” Carr said. “That's not a comfortable feeling. I think that's why most people are more comfortable talking about sex trafficking, because folks think ‘ I don't buy sex so I'm not involved.’ But the reality is that (we) create demand. We demand goods and services that are created by exploited labor.”

Carr and Savit were not aware of similar units in prosecutor's offices across the state.

“This unit is really saying, we are going to shine a spotlight on economic exploitation,” Carr said. “And we're going to use every tool in our toolbox to try to help folks who are harmed in this way.”

Sophia Kalakailo joined Michigan Radio in Sept. 2021 and is a senior at Michigan State University studying journalism and minoring in documentary production. She previously interned at Bridge Michigan and was an editor for The State News and The Eastern Echo covering a wide range of topics.
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