Satana Deberry, Marcia Morey, Clarence Birkhead and Muffin Hudson at a People’s Alliance forum.

Durham’s sheriff and district attorney-elect answered questions about how they will work to reform the Bull City’s criminal justice system during their first one hundred days in office during a forum Tuesday night. 

“Dismantling the New Jim Crow” was one of the People’s Alliance’s regular Progressive Issues forums. The organization co-sponsored the event with Durham for All, Southern Coalition for Social Justice, Southerners on New Ground (aka SONG, which is working to end money bail in Durham and across the South), and the Black Law Student Association chapter at North Carolina Central Law School.

Panelists included state Representative Marcia Morey, a former District Court judge in Durham; Clarence Birkhead, who defeated incumbent Sheriff Mike Andrews two-to-one in the May Democratic primary; and Satana Deberry, who unseated incumbent District Attorney Roger Echols in May and has no opponents in November. Two candidates have launched official write-in campaigns against Birkhead: Paul Martin, a major with the Durham County Sheriff’s Office, and George Boykin, former chief of police for St. Augustine’s University in Raleigh.  

The officials were presented with recommendations from community groups for their first one hundred days in often, spoke about how those requests fit into their existing priorities and values and took questions on how they would go about reducing the number of people in the Durham County, jail, mitigating court fines and fees, and curtailing the cash bail system. 

The People’s Alliance presented fourteen recommendations. The Southern Coalition for Social Justice (SCSJ) put forth five: 

1) Guarantee that there is no interaction between children and adults detained in the jail.

2) A policy of informal deferred prosecutions for all low-level drug offenses, certainly to include marijuana offenses;

3) Expand eligibility for pretrial assessments to all C felonies and below;

4) Complaints by detainees against jail staff should get referred to staff outside of jail administration, such as the Sheriff’s internal affairs office; and,

5) Honoring Durham’s written consent policy by not prosecuting any cases in which the officer cannot produce a written consent form.

Deberry and Birkhead were amenable to the recommendations overall, saying most fit within their existing plans and priorities.

Deberry said her priorities for the first one hundred days include expanded pretrial release policies, a new prosecutorial policy including plea bargaining guidelines, and racial equity training for the office. Birkhead said he would first “listen and learn,” end the sheriff’s office’s practice of honoring nearly all requests from ICE to hold people after they would have otherwise been released, have staff receive racial equity training, continue to hold regular meetings with stakeholders, and review jail operations. 

Some highlights from the discussion:

Juveniles in the jail.

Ian Mance and Whitley Carpenter, staff attorneys with SCSJ said their first recommendation was to bring the Durham jail into compliance with federal standards under the Prison Rape Elimination Act, which requires “sight and sound” separation between juvenile and adult detainees. The attorneys represent the family of Niecey Fennell, who died in the jail last year and “believe she would probably still be alive today if Durham County met federal standards” under PREA, Mance said.

Birkhead said he hoped to get the jail population down enough so that detainees could be moved around in order for such modifications of the building to take place. He told the INDY after the forum he would have to look at how to get those changes made safely and it would not be a “quick fix.” 

Jail oversight.

Both SCSJ and the People’s Alliance asked for outside oversight of the jail. Birkhead said he will convene a civilian oversight board with about twenty-five people, including justice-involved members, that would meet regularly and when issues arise at the jail. He was also amenable to having a non-jail employee to whom detainees could bring complaints about jail staff. 

Court diversion.

Many recommendations and questions from the crowd centered on reducing the number of people going through Durham’s court and jail. SCSJ suggested having more types of offenses (specifically class C felonies and below) eligible for automatic review by the county’s pretrial release program. Deberry said with just forty-eight employees in her office, she hopes to divert more cases pre-charge, expand post-charge diversion programs explore the possibility of people being released pretrial into the custody of a community organization that could ensure they get to court. 

School Resource Officers.

While Birkhead said he didn’t support pulling all deputies from Durham schools where they serve as resource officers as a safety measure, he does plan to retrain all SROs. He said their role is to ensure students are safe and act as resources, not funnel kids into the school-to-prison pipeline.

“Anytime a law enforcement official shows up, the tendency for it to go criminal is pretty good,” he said.

Deberry, for her part, said she hopes to work toward the DA’s office no longer accepting referrals from SROs to charge students criminally.

Community input.

Both Birkhead and Deberry said they plan to hold stakeholders meetings with people involved in the criminal justice system. Deberry said she’d like to convene a community panel and Birkhead said, in addition to plans to form an oversight board, he is already holding regular “listening sessions” including with current sheriff’s office staff.