Late last year, the INDY named the Durham County District Attorney’s Office one of 21 things we’re watching for 2021, due to reform-minded DA Satana Deberry’s efforts to improve the county’s justice system. Since her election in 2018, Deberry has worked to address mass incarceration, jail overcrowding, and racial disparities.

Deberry’s office on Thursday released its annual report showing a focus on crime victims, equity training, and a new program aimed at reducing court appearances of residents with frequent violations. 

“In our 2019 year-end report, we laid out a vision,” Deberry stated in a news release this week. “Those goals were: give a voice to the most vulnerable members of our community, challenge racial disparities within the system as well as our own biases, and address what truly keeps us unsafe as individuals and as a community.”

 “As we grapple with the effects of the pandemic—from case delays to increased gun violence—our vision of an effective, equitable, and compassionate justice system is steadfast.” 

The pandemic’s impact on the court system has been near-debilitating. Durham courtroom operations were reduced in March and did not resume with some degree of in-person normalcy until late last month when a criminal jury was seated for an animal cruelty trial.

Deberry noted that 2020 presented complex challenges for Durham’s courts, the community, and the country, citing COVID deaths, job losses, housing instability, and isolation.

“Those most at risk of interaction with the criminal legal system are also the most likely to suffer the pandemic’s most destabilizing effects,” Deberry said. “One of the results of this destabilization has been a tragic rise in gun violence across U.S. cities, including Durham.”

Moreover, she added, while the pandemic has created case delays, members of the district court staff  “have worked to keep cases, especially those involving victims and violence, on track toward resolution.”

According to the annual report, the district attorney’s prosecutors in 2019 secured 66 percent more homicide convictions than the year before. Deberry’s office last year recorded guilty verdicts, either via plea or trial, on nine homicide charges, and has convicted 34 defendants since elected.

According to the report, the DA’s office last year dismissed homicide charges against another five defendants due to insufficient evidence.

By the end of last year, 101 people were awaiting trial on homicide charges.

Deberry says her office relied on a traffic team staff to prevent a backlog of pending traffic cases from piling up in Durham’s busiest courtroom by resolving cases with defense attorneys outside of court, including dismissing minor violations stemming from financial hardship and addressing matters online.

Deberry also highlighted achievements in law enforcement and criminal justice partnerships.

The office’s work with the Durham Police Department and the city’s crisis response center led to a “trauma-informed” response resulting in 15 arrests made in 18 sexual assault cases dating back to 1984. Those charged included “alleged serial offenders,” Deberry said.

Deberry said her office was mindful of the isolation and stress of the pandemic triggering new risks in homes with past experiences of domestic violence. Prosecutors stepped up efforts to share resources for survivors and assurances of support to domestic abuse victims pursuing criminal charges.

Noting racial disparities present at every stage of the criminal legal process — “from traffic stops to pre-trial incarceration to sentencing,” Deberry touted “unprecedented” racial equity training last year with the Vera Institute of Justice that was attended by partners and stakeholders across Durham’s criminal legal system.

The DA’s office also held its first town hall at St. Joseph AME Church, where prosecutors discussed the court process, how they handle cases involving guns, and answered questions from the public.

This led to quarterly sessions in tandem with the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham, with families of homicide victims “to answer their questions about the court process and hear directly from them about their experiences.”

Deberry says she is listening to the victims of violent crime and spearheading work centered on reforming repeat perpetrators.

Deberry said her office is collaborating with the Criminal Justice Resource Center to launch a post-arrest diversion program to assist people with court-involvement histories, holding them accountable and “helping them to not return [to court] again.”

Other highlights included assisting judicial officials to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in county jail and the community by “safely lowering the population” in the jail. The report indicated the daily jail population last year was about 40 percent of its overall capacity, allowing for better social distancing.

As the INDY reported in November, the district attorney’s office worked with the DEAR Program to complete a two-year program that extends debt relief to more than 11,000 people whose driver’s licenses were suspended due to their inability to pay traffic fines and fees.

“Having a driver’s license can transform a life,” Deberry said. “Through DEAR, thousands of people in Durham now have better access to employment, education, and other opportunities.”

In an effort to create safer avenues for relief for members of the Latinx community, Deberry said the DA’s office last year certified 336 U Visa petitions as part of the application process for immigrant victims of crime, up from about 280 applications in 2019.

U Visas, reserved for immigrants who are victims of certain types of crime and cooperate with law enforcement, give eligible people permission to work in the U.S. and a path to a green card. 

Law enforcement has to certify that the applicant has helped with the investigation.

The DA’s office has also started to receive and approve T-Visa applications for victims of human trafficking.

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