When Oakland County voters fill out their ballots for the upcoming election, they will have the opportunity to fundamentally shape the direction of their local criminal legal system and the values that will be pursued. 

Karen McDonald and Lin Goetz will face off in the November 3rd General Election.  

Lin Goetz, an attorney who previously served as an assistant prosecutor, has staked out familiar territory in a county that, until recently, leaned heavily conservative. 

"My focus is on the safety of the community, and that means keeping good law and order," is how she recently described herself to the Detroit News.  

Her opponent, former judge Karen McDonald, has embraced a criminal justice reform platform.  

“I stepped down from the bench in 2019 because we need a prosecutor who will actively work to end mass incarceration and implement progressive criminal justice reform that will create a fair system for all people,” is how McDonald, who also served a stint as an assistant prosecutor, described her reason for running.  

That message certainly resonated with Oakland County’s Democratic voters, who overwhelmingly chose McDonald over longtime incumbent Jessica Cooper in the August primary, garnering 65 percent of the vote.  

We know, thanks to a poll conducted by Change Research in April of this year, that a clear majority of Michigan’s residents are ready to see fundamental change occur within the state’s criminal legal system. As that poll showed, 77 percent of those surveyed said that combatting racism in the criminal legal system is important. Likewise, 61 percent said it is important to reduce the number of people locked up in jails and prisons.  

That’s not an anomaly. A preference for reform, and electing prosecutors who promise to enact it, is a trend being seen among voters in places across America.  

Whether it will continue when Oakland County ballots are counted once this general election concludes remains to be seen. 

As a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, the ACLU doesn’t support or endorse candidates. What we can do, instead, is highlight issues and policies we believe are important, and then inform the public about the candidates’ positions on those issues.  

That is why we went to the effort of querying every prosecutor candidate in Michigan prior to the August primary, and why I am bringing them to your attention now. We wanted to make sure that voters know their candidates’ positions on a host of issues that must be addressed if we want to bring justice to our criminal legal system. 

You can see for yourself exactly the positions Ms. Goetz and Ms. McDonald have taken on a host of crucial issues by reading their responses to our questionnaire at smartjusticeMI.org. And if you don’t live in Oakland County, you can also review the positions held by other prosecutor candidates throughout the state. 

There’s good reason to focus attention on this and other prosecutor races. The ACLU of Michigan, through its Campaign for Smart Justice, is on a mission to end mass incarceration and eliminate racial disparities in the criminal legal system. To achieve those goals, it is crucial to have county prosecutors onboard. That’s because no single person in our communities has more power to bring about true justice than the county prosecutor, a locally elected official empowered to decide who to charge, what charges to bring, and ultimately, how many people sit behind bars. 

They are also in a position to help eradicate racism from our criminal legal system. 

The result of that racism is especially evident in Oakland County, where Black people are six times more likely than whites to be admitted to the Oakland County Jail — even though they only make up about 14 percent of the county’s total population.  

Along with a briefing book that details how prosecutors can create a more just criminal legal system, we sent out our questionnaires to every candidate asking if they would, among other things: 

  • Stop recommending cash bail 
  • Decline to seek life without the possibility of parole for juveniles  
  • Invest in alternatives to incarceration for people with mental illness, substance use disorder, indigent defendants, and veterans  
  • Appoint an independent investigator in all cases of police-involved shootings and publicly share the investigation findings 
  • Acknowledge that prosecutorial practices have been responsible for racial disparities in the criminal legal system and work to alleviate those disparities 

Like I said, you can see where the candidates stand on these issues and more at smartjusticeMI.org. 

And then, once you do, I hope you put the knowledge gleaned to use when you cast your ballot. Because, in the end, what’s most important isn’t any particular candidate. It is about the future voters want to see, and the values they embrace.