August 3, 2020
LANSING – With added support for victims, new operational procedures and protocols, and reorganization of staff members, the Michigan Department of Attorney General is continuing on a path of implementing law enforcement best practices that began when Attorney General Dana Nessel took over in January 2019.
Drawing on her years of experience as a civil rights attorney, criminal prosecutor and criminal defense attorney, Nessel has reshaped the office to improve transparency and accountability of those working in law enforcement while providing defendants with due process rights and victims with assistance as they work through the legal process.
“Traditional operations and the status quo may not always be the best approach, and just because we’ve done something for years, doesn’t mean we can’t be innovative and find a better, more efficient, and more just way of doing things,” Nessel said. “Michiganders deserve a government that rolls up its sleeves, goes to work every day and takes the steps needed to make things better, and my focus since taking office has been exactly that – to look at how my department can best serve the people of this state.”
In an era of criminal justice reforms, the Attorney General’s office has been at work over the past 19 months to ensure investigations and prosecutions are built on integrity and that accountability in law enforcement procedures is not overlooked.
Since early 2019, the office has also rearranged its organizational structure to improve operational oversight and efficiency without extra cost to Michigan taxpayers.
Earlier this year, the department created the Criminal Trials and Appeals Division, combined from the former Criminal Trials and Criminal Appellate divisions, since those two divisions often handled similar and complementary cases.
In July, the office announced the establishment of the new Criminal Investigations Division, which reorganized the department’s special agents under one division with an independent chain of command. That process ensures the fact-finders leading investigations are separate from the prosecutors – similar to how the investigative and prosecutorial processes works at the county level.
Through her Public Integrity Unit – housed in the Criminal Trials and Appeals Division – Attorney General Nessel has authorized the review of multiple cases of police-involved fatal shootings and other law enforcement misconduct cases to ensure those investigations were thoroughly conducted in an unbiased and evidence-driven manner.
To better serve the public’s interests throughout the entire state, Nessel established an office in Flint and also re-established a presence in the Upper Peninsula by staffing the Marquette satellite office with an assistant attorney general – the first time in more than a decade that the department has stationed an AAG in the U.P.
Rights and Wrongs
Meanwhile under Nessel’s tenure, the department has moved attorneys into its Civil Rights Division to expand its ability to address civil rights matters in the state. The division also saw the addition of the Conviction Integrity Unit, which was previously housed in the former Criminal Appellate Division. The move to the Civil Rights Division provides an independent chain of command directly to Solicitor General Fadwa Hammoud. Through the award of a grant at the beginning of the year, the Conviction Integrity Unit is able to expand and is in the process of bringing in two special investigators to help review claims of innocence.
In September, Nessel established the four-member Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Act (WICA) Board to review each WICA request and make recommendations on key decisions in the litigation of WICA cases. Once cases meet the legal standard of wrongful conviction, the act ensures exonerees are provided appropriate compensation for the harm they suffered. To date, the WICA Board has approved more than $2 million in compensation.
Victims’ rights are the cornerstone of the criminal justice system, and Nessel’s office was able to hire additional victim advocates with grants from the federal government. Victim advocates support victims as they proceed through the criminal justice system and keep victims aware of legal proceedings related to their cases. Victim advocates are professionally trained and are assigned to provide services to victims in specific focus areas, such as clergy abuse, sexual assault cases like the Larry Nassar tragedy at Michigan State University and elder abuse, among others. The Attorney General’s office recently revamped its Crime Victim Rights website to provide more information to those people who find themselves navigating the legal system after being victimized by a criminal act.
Policies, Procedures and Training
Following the discovery of misconduct by an assistant attorney general last fall, the Attorney General’s office required all of its prosecutors and agents to complete ethics training, and established a policy so that a copy of ethics violations complaints must be sent directly to the Attorney General and executive staff members.
To avoid prejudicial behavior as much as possible, all department employees are completing implicit bias training to arm investigators and prosecutors with the tools needed to conduct fair and unbiased work.
With the legalization of recreational marijuana, Nessel discontinued the department’s pursuit of criminal charges against those who were formerly considered offenders under the law to free up resources that can be better used elsewhere.
The office has also undertaken a more considerate approach to defendants, offering them individualized plea deals based on the specific characteristics of their cases, rather than the past practice of offering generalized across-the-board deals that were rigid and provided little room for negotiation.
Nessel also reformed the Communications Division as the Office of Public Information and Education, which realigned existing staff members under one umbrella to improve communication with constituents. Additionally, Nessel’s outreach efforts have continued by hosting and participating in town halls, AG Scam Jam events to raise awareness of consumer protection, and other community engagement matters to make sure Michigan residents have the opportunity to have their voices heard.
The Attorney General’s office will continue to evaluate its procedures and seek ways to improve efficiency in its operations and accountability in its ranks as it strives to become a model law enforcement agency and implement best practices.