Attorney Scott Holmes pressed candidates running for district attorney in Durham Tuesday night about what they would do to lessen the harms of the criminal justice system on poor people, people of color, and young people.
The forum, sponsored by The Justice Collaborative Engagement Project, ACLU of North Carolina, and Carolina Justice Policy Center, covered topics including cash bail, diversion programs, juvenile justice, the death penalty, police misconduct, and drug enforcement. Holmes, who supervises the Civil Litigation Clinic at N.C. Central, where the event was held, and is known for representing local activists in court, moderated.
Holmes posed detailed questions to the candidates about their values and policy proposals, sometimes in the context of cases he had defended against the District Attorney’s Office.
All three candidates are Democrats and will face each other in a primary on May 8. Incumbent Roger Echols is seeking a second term against challengers Satana Deberry and Daniel Meier. Deberry is executive director of the North Carolina Housing Coalition, and Meier is a criminal defense attorney.
In opening and closing remarks, Meier called for a “cultural shift” within the District Attorney’s Office that would focus more on appropriate consequences for breaking the law than convictions. He cited a need for more funding for programs that divert cases from the regular court docket and for cases to be handled more expeditiously, and emphasized his experience and relationships with law enforcement.
“I think it’s time to move things
Echols said decisions made by the DA’s office should “first and foremost” keep the community safe and also try to “put people in a better position after they come in contact with the justice system.” He pointed to his office’s implementation of restorative justice practices, mental health court, and an amnesty program for people whose licenses have been revoked. Echols said he has brought stability to the DA’s office and has already begun to reform the way it operates.
“There’s certainly more work to be done, but there’s work that has started during my administration, and I would ask to continue that work as we work to better ourselves and make our community a better place to live for all of us and certainly make it a safer place to live,” he said.
Deberry began her remarks by saying she’s been a lawyer longer than her two opponents (she’s been licensed by the state bar since 1994, Echols since 1998, and Meier since 2002), but “that’s not what this race is about.”
“What I think this race is about is a culture change here in Durham County,” she said. “We deserve better.”
In a dig at Echols, she said, “It’s not enough to start programs”—Durham’s criminal justice system is still over-prosecuting, over-incarcerating, and marginalizing people of color. She said the DA needs to take the lead in making Durham’s justice system as progressive as Durham claims to be. She called for a more transparent office and a prosecutorial policy that reflects community values.
On many questions, the three candidates broadly agreed—for example on seeking unsecured bonds for more offenses, looking for alternatives to a conviction that prevent a criminal record or the imposition of fines, and limiting how often people would be prosecuted as habitual felons.
Their stances on the death penalty did differ. While Deberry and Meier said they totally opposed the death penalty, Echols said he is not a proponent but wouldn’t commit to “never” pursuing it—reiterating a stance he took several times Tuesday night that cases should be considered individually. He added that he has sought the death penalty once in his four years as DA.
Amid a national and local push to reform the cash-bail system, Holmes asked whether the candidates would support to a policy of seeking unsecured bonds as a default for certain offenses and a warning system for people who miss court as an alternative to putting them in jail. In the same question, he also asked how the candidates would handle detaining people under eighteen in jail pretrial.
Meier began his answer by saying that there are too many people in jail simply because they can’t afford to get out, but judges, not the DA’s office, set bail amounts. Meier said he believes bonds less than $5,000 should not be secured (meaning people have to pay the bond in order to be released from jail).
“We need to keep people out of the jail and in the community, in their families, and in their jobs,” he said. He also suggested an amnesty program for people who failed to appear in court on lower-level charges—and don’t do so frequently—to get new court dates rather than be taken into custody for that failure to appear.
Echols said he would support adjusting the current bail guidelines written by local judges to suggest that people charged with more offenses, including some low-level felonies, be released on unsecured bonds (which only need to be paid if the person fails to appear in court) or on a written promise to appear in court.
Teenagers facing misdemeanors or low-level felonies generally shouldn’t be held in jail pretrial, he said. Taking teenagers into custody is “not optimal regardless of the crime they’re charged with,” he said, ” but at the same time, if it’s a serious felony, you are balancing that with the safety of the community.”
Deberry said only teenagers facing very serious charges should be jailed
and should be held in juvenile facilities. On bail, she said she would work with judges and law enforcement to develop
a list of offenses for which an unsecured bond would be the default.
“Instead of the district attorney presuming that every bond should be secured and on an individual basis, we’ll make a determination about unsecured bond. I think we can flip that on its head,” she said.
She pushed back on the idea that the district attorney doesn’t have the authority to change the way bail is used in Durham. State law lets local judges determine specific bail policies for their jurisdiction.
“I think it’s unrealistic to say that if the DA and the defense counsel go before a judge and ask for
bond that a judge is going to say no,” she said.
You can watch the debate in full here. Here’s when each topic comes up in the video:
Opening remarks – 9:30
Cash bail – 18:25
Racial disparities in traffic stops, searches, and marijuana prosecution – 26:25
Prosecuting police misconduct – 36:00
Criminalization of poverty – 45:45
Juvenile cases – 54:10
Death penalty – 1:00:50
Treatment of victims – 1:04:50
Habitual felon prosecutions – 1:12:38
Restorative justice – 1:19:30
Closing remarks – 1:27:12