Credit: Cameron Beach - The 9th Street Journal

The criminal justice reform efforts of Durham district attorney Satana Deberry are spotlighted in a new book that came out last month.

Deberry, who is running unopposed for a second term in this month’s general elections, is one of 13 reform-minded prosecutors across the country who are profiled in Change from Within: Reimagining the 21st Century Prosecutor, published by New Press and authored by Miriam Krinsky, a former federal prosecutor and the executive director of the nonprofit Fair and Just Prosecution.

“Based on interviews conducted by Krinsky, Change from Within tells the compelling, first-person stories of 13 bold and unique elected prosecutors who are using the immense power of their offices to chart a path toward a smaller and more rehabilitative criminal legal system,” according to a press release from the Durham district attorney’s office.

“I’m excited to share my story alongside these leaders at the forefront of a more fair, equitable and effective criminal legal system,” Deberry said in the release. “As district attorney my top priority is the safety and well-being of our community. That’s why I’ve focused my office’s resources on holding people accountable for violent offenses, implemented new victim services, and expanded opportunities for second chances. Criminal legal reform is not at odds with public safety, instead it’s critical to ensuring safety and justice for all.”

Change From Within is garnering praise from an impressive list of judicial luminaries.

“A thoughtful perspective on a new breed of prosecutors struggling to right egregious wrongs of the past,” stated Barry Scheck, co-founder and special counsel with The Innocence Project. “Change from Within presents a moving, clear-eyed, and ultimately uplifting attestation of the future we can create together.” 

“This book highlights courageous prosecutors who have rejected overly simplistic ‘tough on crime’ slogans, instead finding innovative ways to fulfill their important missions.” wrote Barbara McQuade, a former U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan

At the heart of Krinsky’s work are intimate profiles of reformist prosecutors “who share candid accounts of how and why they became criminal justice leaders” along with “the steps they are taking to reform the criminal legal system in ways that promote justice, equity, accountability and public safety,” according to the release

The prosecutors featured in the new volume “come from diverse personal and professional backgrounds, cross party lines and represent both urban and rural jurisdictions – from California to Texas to Massachusetts.”

The innovations that inform their work include restorative justice, police accountability, diversion and deflection from the legal system, post-conviction justice, juvenile justice reform, and harm reduction.

When Deberry, a native of Hamlet, NC won a first term in 2019, she was among a cadre of reformist DAs across the country, including Rachael Rollins in Boston and Larry Krasner in Philadelphia—the latter of whom Deberry held up as a model—who argued that a system born from reactionary zero-tolerance, tough-on-crime policies was intrinsically racist and counterproductive, producing a carceral state that had ripped apart communities of color. 

Shortly after taking office, Deberry revamped a pretrial-release policy that led to fewer residents spending time in jail before their trial. The measure resulted in a 12 percent decline in the county-jail population. Her office also resolved 22 homicide cases by the summer of that year, an increase from the same period in 2018. 

Deberry created a special victims unit and scheduled monthly meetings with Durham police to review the results of sexual assault evidence kits in an effort to bring closure to cases, many of which have gone unresolved for years. 

Her office partnered with the judicial community and waived unpaid traffic fines and fees for thousands of residents who lost their licenses in recent years, enabling them to once again become legal drivers. Deberry refused to accept court referrals for school-based incidents, with rare exceptions for serious crimes, and she stopped threatening criminal charges against parents of students who miss school.

Deberry’s reformist efforts have been accompanied by criticism, both locally and nationally.

In late June, Deberry was the subject of pointed questions in the WRAL documentary “Durham Under Fire” that asks, why is gun violence so bad in Durham? The documentary questioned Deberry’s reformist policies, including not aggressively prosecuting low-level offenses that she says have resulted in mass incarceration and the over-policing of Black and brown communities, and wiping clean the records of hundreds of children who were charged as adults.

The WRAL documentary also reported that prior to Deberry’s term, Durham, in 2016 through 2017, had a felony conviction rate of 51 percent, excluding plea bargains. During Deberry’s tenure that number has dropped to 33 percent.

Deberry states in the documentary that gun violence is not unique to Durham.

“Violent crime is up nationwide,” she said. “And so this idea that Durham is exceptionally violent is simply not true.”

In March, during a highly partisan hearing in the nation’s capital, Deberry knocked down similar claims from GOP lawmakers who argued that reforms like the ones Deberry implemented were behind the spike in violent crime across the United States.

Deberry told members of the U.S. House Judiciary subcommittee that gun violence in Durham, like elsewhere in the country, has been exacerbated by “a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic [that] has disrupted support systems and strained institutions and organizations that respond to and try to prevent violence” and that commonsense, evidence-based reforms were needed.

Deberry said that in addition to the pandemic’s disruptions, two prominent features in America have played a significant role in the nation’s violent crime wave: poverty and easy access to firearms.

“The year 2020 saw the largest single-year increase in poverty ever recorded in the United States,” Deberry told the committee. “Study after study has shown that increases in poverty are closely linked to increases in crime because extreme poverty creates stress and seeds desperation, making people more likely to see crime as their best or only option.”

“At the same time, Americans purchased guns in record numbers,” she continued. “Nearly 23 million guns were purchased in 2020 and nearly 20 million were purchased in 2021, the highest and second-highest years on record.”

Deberry’s chapter in Change From Within features “Satana in Situ,” a 2021 acrylic on paper portrait of her by artist Jared Owens. The New York–based multidisciplinary artist whose work “focuses on bringing awareness to the plight of nearly 2.5 million people who are enmeshed in the U.S. carceral state,” according to Fair and Just Prosecution.

Owens was self-taught while spending more than 18 years in prison, “working in painting, sculpture, and installation, using materials and references culled from penal matter.”

Deberry’s smooth brown face is framed by a gray Afro in the painting and flanked by several statements she makes  during the interview that chronicles “her journey to the district attorney’s office, and how it informs her views on justice and priorities as district attorney,” according to the press release.

“My ideology is always how do we get to freedom, and how do we offer safety for the broadest number of people in the community, starting with those among us who have the least?’

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