Satana Deberry became part of a cadre of progressive, reform-minded district attorneys across the country when she was elected Durham County’s top prosecutor last year.
A former defense attorney who also worked to prevent home foreclosures while at Self-Help Credit Union, Deberry promised during her campaign to fundamentally change the way the county’s criminal justice system operates by addressing mass incarceration, jail overcrowding, and racial disparities.
This week, the DA’s office released a six-month progress report that touts nearly twenty new policies that Deberry says allow residents to “avoid criminal justice involvement” while enabling her office to “prioritize serious crimes in which harm was done to a member of our community and be more transparent and engaged as a public office.”
Among the highlights: a pretrial release policy that frowns upon keeping residents in jail before trial, which has led to a 12 percent decline in the county jail population; the resolution of twenty-two homicide cases, an increase from the same time period in 2018; 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 been unresolved for years; waiving unpaid traffic fines and fees for more than two thousand residents who lost their licenses at least two years ago, enabling them to once again become legal drivers; refusing to accept court referrals for school-based incidents, with rare exceptions for serious crimes; and ending the practice of threatening criminal charges against parents of students who miss school.
On Friday, Deberry spoke to the INDY about her first six months in office, what shaped her criminal justice philosophy, and what she plans to focus on going forward.
INDY: Where did you grow up? Did your early years shape your ideas about criminal justice reform?
SATANA DEBERRY: I was born and raised in Hamlet, North Carolina. Both of my parents were teachers. My mother taught elementary school, mostly first grade. My dad taught at Leak Street, fourth and sixth grade. My grandparents taught in Richmond and Scotland Counties. I don’t know how it shaped my criminal justice philosophy, but it certainly shaped how I got out of Richmond County. There was the expectation that I would go to college. I was part of a community that supported me and my education.
[Editor’s note: Deberry received her undergraduate degree from Princeton and her law degree from Duke. She briefly practiced law in Washington, D.C., from 1994–96, before returning to Richmond County, where she opened a criminal defense practice with her friend, Stephany Hand, who recently died.]
That’s when my views on criminal justice started to take shape because I was practicing criminal defense work in the community I grew up in. I was in my twenties, and I started to see people in court that I grew up with, that I had known my entire life. I started to realize the difference between us was very small.
My family supported me and supported my education. Everybody didn’t have that. That was the big difference. I got away. They stayed. There were no economic opportunities and really wasn’t much for you to do without an education. It was the nineties, a War on Drugs, and local law enforcement was receiving funding to combat the war. People poor, who had never been perceived as criminals, were now being viewed as criminals. But it was just people making choices. And the only choice they had, really, was dealing drugs. Really, it was all that was left because they couldn’t get out.
I left being a criminal defense attorney mostly because I couldn’t take it anymore. My clients were being charged with very serious crimes, and they were very poor. Most of them had attorneys who were court-appointed with little or no resources to investigate their cases. I felt like I wasn’t doing any good. I was handling one case at a time and not addressing the issues on a systemic level.
I came back to Durham and was kind of doing a side practice doing foreclosures when I came to the attention of Self Help Credit Union and I started to work for them.
One of the new policies you highlighted in your report this week is the expansion of restorative justice practices that bring together, outside of the courtroom, crime victims and the persons charged with the crime against them. Your office notes that two such cases have already been completed and five more are pending. These cases range from misdemeanor larceny to felony assault, and you’re hoping to expand the program by partnering with local organizations. What’s been the result of those meetings?
One of the big frustrations, certainly, for people who have been the victims of a crime is knowing those charged with the crime have two options; jail or nothing. A lot of times you want to know what happened. “Why did you steal from me? Why did you choose me?” We hope for the victim to get these answers and for there to be some healing around what happened. It’s really about what happens when people break that social contract with each other.
Are you worried about how far you might go with criminal justice reforms before the state legislature starts to intervene?
Not really. The district attorney is a constitutional office. It’s written in the North Carolina Constitution. My responsibility is really to the people of Durham County and doing what’s right, not to the legislature.
In some cities—Philadelphia comes to mind—reform-minded district attorneys have gotten pushback whenever there’s a crime wave. Even though those things are out of your control, do you worry if, say, the spike in homicides continues, Durham residents are going to look askance at your ideas about criminal justice reform?
The prosecutor’s office has nothing to do with increases in the crime rate. I am worried about the safety of the people of Durham County, but they elected me in the past election, and they not only elected me, but [Durham County] Sheriff Clarence Birkhead. The Durham Police Department has a very progressive chief in Chief [CJ] Davis. We all want Durham to be safe, but at the same time, we don’t want to do the things that prevent people from being able to participate in the growth of our city.
Why did you think Durham would accept your progressive criminal justice policies? Do you think your policies are in sync with the country at-large, or do you consider yourself to be part of a new trailblazing effort in criminal justice reform?
I’m not the first person to try and change the criminal justice system in Durham. There have been community groups and judges who have been working on this for over a decade. The movement came to me. I didn’t create it. I think there are more and more communities in the country that want criminal justice reform. I think people have seen the real consequences to human lives—the mass incarceration, the prosecution. It’s important because people with a criminal record can’t get a job, can’t get a place to live. People in jail or prison often lose access to their families, their children, and their communities. Who are they going to be when they come out to us?
How do you think your new policies have affected other elements of the city and county’s criminal justice community—the members of law enforcement on the front lines, public defenders, judges, your fellow prosecutors?
I think a lot of people during the campaign said, ‘She can’t do what she’s promising to do.’ And I think there was a lot of skepticism. But I think they see now that the old way was a failure of imagination. But I hope they see now, our individual decisions can create systemic issues, and we really have to look at it from both sides, not only as accountability by the individual, but also what the community is accountable for.
What will your office focus on over the next six months?
We are working on those things now. I thought it would take longer than six months to accomplish what we have already accomplished. So what we are thinking of now are more diversion opportunities that we can provide for people outside of probation.
Contact staff writer Thomasi McDonald at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Dismissal of murder cases doesn’t count as “resolution,” Ms. Deberry. “The prosecutor’s office has nothing to do with increases in the crime rate. I am worried about the safety of the people of Durham County…” – that’s a whole lot of lip service coming from a DA’s office that has repeatedly released murderers – both convicted and accused – back to our city’s streets, emboldened by the failure of our justice system. They got away with murder once – what’s to stop them from doing it again? You want to decriminalize minor drug offenses? Fine. Go to town. But mass dismissal of rape and homicide cases is a lazy, dangerous method of making good on your campaign promises.
Anyone curious to get a personal anecdote of someone who was truly victimized by the Durham County District Attorney and her inexperienced, unqualified underlings, see the Open Letter to Santana Deberry posted in the Durham County courthouse.
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