The fallout from the Duke Lacrosse case hangs over this spring’s Democratic primary for Durham district attorney, with each of the candidates–Freda Black, Tracey Cline, Mitch Garrell and Keith Bishop–ducking for cover. But Durham’s next prosecutor will have to manage an office that handles about 70 non-headline-grabbing felony trials a year. Current District Attorney David Saacks, who was appointed by Gov. Mike Easley when Mike Nifong resigned over the lacrosse case, is not running for the post.
What are the most important things the district attorney can do to improve the administration of justice in the DA’s office?
We are constantly trying to find a better way to run court time, especially from our trial calendar. The problem is there are too many variables out of our control. Cases might get continued or get called and held or witnesses don’t show up. We’ve had cases where there was a sickness from an attorney or a death in the family, all the way to a juror having a problem. There are too many factors that come into play.
After months of controversy surrounding suspects who post bond and commit crime, Durham courts raised bond amounts to make it harder for suspects to get out of jail while awaiting trial. Will this work?
Whether it fixes the problem remains to be seen. Our hope is that when [a suspect is] charged with a violent offense, it addresses more of the public safety concern and gets them off the street in the immediate to calm things down and gives us a chance to look at the case. So many times, when the bonds were low, they would get in and they’d get out and get to some witnesses that were involved in the case, flee the jurisdiction or commit other offenses. We understand that they are presumed innocent at that time, so there is a fine line that you have to walk.
When is it appropriate to plea bargain cases?
It is usually appropriate, only because of the number of cases we deal with. And Durham is no different than any other district or county in the state. It would be inappropriate to offer a plea bargain in first-degree murder cases. With every other charge, there’s usually something you can do [in exchange for a guilty plea].
North Carolina prosecutes 16-year-olds as adults. Do you support the pending legislation to raise that age to 18?
It really makes no difference to me. The legislature can make changes to whatever they want. I just want make sure that everyone understands the consequences. There is without question a huge population of 16- and 17-year-olds that commit criminal offenses and violent criminal offenses. I have no problem dealing with them in juvenile court if that’s what our society and our legislature says is the right way to deal with it.
There are two main things that come up with this. One is the cost. I don’t think you can just raise it and leave it as things are right now because that’s going to put an unbearable burden on the juvenile system. One estimate I heard is they would have to double their staff to handle this population. Eventually it’s going to fall back on the county. You have to hold people on a violent offense. They can’t go into the jail. They have to go into the youth home. The youth home is already full.
The second thing I always bring up is violent offenders can still come to adult court but it’s in the discretion of the juvenile court judge.
Would the juvenile courts be more effective at curbing youth crime?
That’s one of the huge arguments for raising the age. I have not personally seen the data. In juvenile court, there are more services, more programs and more supervision where they can address these problems than in the adult system. They hope to be able to stop some recidivism they see in the adult court. I understand that, and they very well could be right.