Jackson prosecutor won't seek re-election Henry Zavislak says he's always a cop at heart

By Tom Gantert

Legal News

Ask Jackson County prosecutor Henry Zavislak about his reputation as a "lock 'em up" prosecutor who advocated tougher penalties for repeat offenders, and he becomes very animated.

"The system has lost credibility with the criminal element," he says. "For too many years, the rights of the criminals have been emphasized at the expense of rights of the victims."

A couple of minutes later, he smiles.

"You got me on a roll, now," he says.

Zavislak's passion for law enforcement is still obvious. But after 22 years as the county sheriff and the last 10 years as the county prosecutor, Zavislak announced he won't be running for office again. He's 8-0 in his elections as a Republican sheriff and prosecutor after being appointed prosecutor in 2002.

"I'm ready to do something else," says Zavislak, adding that he's not sure what that will include other than spending more time with his four grandchildren, and some traveling.

Friends and colleagues say he will be missed.

"He is the most respected politician in Jackson County," said Mark Blumer, chief assistant prosecuting attorney for Jackson County. "There is an element of a career sheriff in him. That is a permanent part of his personality. He never quite left 'sheriff' behind."

Zavislak has been critical of the state's parole system, saying Michigan should scrap it for the federal system that doesn't grant parole. He has advocated for harsher sentencing for repeat offenders, which puts him at odds with some prosecutors.

"Thanks for the compliment," Zavislak says, when reminded of his reputation. "Is that to say I believe everybody should be locked up? No. I am a very conservative hard-line cop. Where the system has failed is not intervening quickly. Criminals have been allowed to play the system."

Daniel Heyns, a former Jackson County Sheriff who worked with Zavislak and is now director of the Michigan Department of Corrections, remembered a time years ago when he saw Zavislak's no-nonsense style.

Heyns was at a plant where replacement workers were working, and about 200 union protesters showed up. Heyns was working for the sheriff's department under Zavislak at the time, and had about five officers trying to keep the peace even while some of the union protesters were getting rowdy.

Zavislak arrived and was in favor of arresting some of the protesters who were breaking the law. Heyns knew his team was heavily outnumbered and wanted to restore the calm without arresting anyone.

"He gave me one of those looks: 'I trust your judgment. You are the command officer. But I don't like it,' " Heyns said. "That's why people liked working for him. He empowered you to do your job."

Peter Langley worked for nearly four years as an assistant prosecutor under Zavislak and is now director of the Senate Majority Policy Office for the Michigan Senate Republicans.

"Jackson is losing a real Titan in local leadership," Langley said. "Hank has been a leader in the community for decades and his retirement is going to felt. People will remember his time as sheriff and his leadership as prosecutor on the new Child Advocacy Center but those are really only a small part of his contribution to the county. People don't really understand the leadership and mentoring that occurred under his guidance. I have never worked for a person that took such great pride in seeing those that he hired move on to new challenges."

Langley said those who worked for Zavislak include a state senator, a circuit court judge, director of the state prison and many other community leaders.

"I think every one of them could tell you how it started with a kind word of encouragement and support from Hank. He is the kind of leader that only comes along once in a great while - and he's got the vote tally to back it up," Langley said.

Being elected as both sheriff and prosecutor is a rare combination, legal experts say.

Zavislak said he doesn't know of any other prosecutors who were also sheriffs.

He compares the two jobs to a fisherman who uses a different type of fishing line, bait and technique to catch walleye and salmon.

"But you are still fishing," he says. "It really was a continuation of my career. I really am a cop at heart who happens to be a lawyer."

And it is his days as a cop that still sit with him.

In one of his first days on the job as Jackson County sheriff, Zavislak went to the scene of a robbery where a man was killed in what Zavislak believes was execution style.

"This is Jackson," Zavislak remembers thinking that day in 1989. "How could this happen here?"

After 32 years as the sheriff and prosecutor in Jackson County, you get the feeling that Zavislak still struggles to answer that question.

Despite his hard-line stance on incarceration, Zavislak has never fired his gun in the line of duty.

"The best thing a police officer can say is that I never had to shoot somebody," he says.

And he sometimes shows his lighter side.

Heyns remembered when Zavislak bought grapefruits the day before Christmas for all the prisoners in the jail. When the prisoners were done eating the grapefruit, they flushed the grinds down the toilet.

It backed up the plumbing system on Christmas Eve.

"We were floating in grapefruits and sewage," Heyns said. "I joked, 'This will teach you to be Mr. Nice Guy to the inmates.' "

Those who know Zavislak best say his compassion for victims has remained strong through the years.

Blumer said Zavislak wasn't concerned with his conviction rate and wasn't afraid to lose a questionable case if it meant putting a criminal behind bars.

"He would say, 'We owe it to the victims to get a fair hearing in court,' " Blumer said.

And Zavislak saw his role as sheriff and then prosecutor as a key to getting justice for victims.

"They are the two most important positions," he says. "They are the last line of defense against the 3 to 4 percent who want to victimize the 96 percent of the good people."

Published: Thu, Apr 26, 2012