Name as it appears on the ballot: Jeff Nieman
Campaign website: www.jeffnieman.com
Years lived in Orange/Chatham County: 40 years, since I was 5
1. What do you believe are the most important issues facing the District Attorney’s Office? What are your top three priorities in addressing these issues?
I believe that systemic racism and implicit bias affect nearly every aspect of our lives, including racial disparities in the criminal justice system. As District Attorney, I will make implicit bias training mandatory for all DA staff. I also believe that hiring decisions should be made with an appreciation of the community served. I will make intentional recruiting efforts to encourage more applicants from under-represented communities to consider future careers in a district attorney’s office, especially in our district. For equity reasons and many other reasons published on my campaign website, I have also made a public commitment not to seek the death penalty in our district.
The criminalization of poverty is another important issue that I will continue to fight against. I co-founded the Driver’s License Restoration Project to help revoked, indigent individuals escape the vicious cycle of court costs and fines and help safe drivers to regain their licenses. Going forward as DA, I will continue to advance our district’s practice of working with our local specialized restoration attorney to help those with revoked licenses to get back to licensure in a fair way. I will also ensure the DA’s office considers a defendant’s ability to pay fines and court costs when making prosecutorial decisions and sentencing recommendations.
Finally, the U.S. criminal justice system is plagued by mass incarceration, which in many cases is not creating positive societal results for those convicted nor better outcomes for our broader communities. I have a 16-year career track record of creating, utilizing and advocating for rehabilitative approaches to criminal justice in lieu of traditional criminal justice consequences, including incarceration, and as DA, I will continue to lead in this effort. Additionally, I have committed to expunge all juvenile criminal records eligible under the Second Chance Act as an effort to enable young people to build paths to productive adult livelihoods.
A therapeutic court is a type of specialized court program that seeks to focus on rehabilitation of underlying issues for individuals charged with crimes. This alternative path is especially important when traditional criminal justice system consequences (i.e. monetary fines, probation or incarceration) are not shown to likely address the core problems leading individuals to commit similar crimes in the future. When individuals charged with crimes are referred to a therapeutic court, they can have their criminal cases moved to a path where the court system offers them an opportunity to avoid incarceration or a criminal conviction, which often involves substance use disorder treatment, mental health treatment, and social services engagement.
I have personally witnessed better results for our Chatham and Orange County communities in utilization of rehabilitative approaches in thousands of cases over my career. I will continue to engage community resources, including in therapeutic court programs, to create better outcomes for all.
As DA, I will work to ensure that courts treat all people fairly, regardless of their race, identity and socioeconomic status. I will utilize our local community resources and equity considerations to seek justice.
2. What in your record as a public official or other experience demonstrates your ability to be an effective district attorney? This might include career or community service; be specific about its relevance to this office.
Our district deserves a District Attorney with not only sufficient experience to do the job but also a proven track record of utilizing progressive approaches to criminal justice to achieve better outcomes for all. I have spent my 16-year career as an Assistant District Attorney and personal community service time to create and advocate for multiple initiatives to stop the criminalization of poverty, reduce mass incarceration and empower youth in our community. I created our district’s Outreach Court, the first therapeutic court for individuals experiencing homelessness in the state. I also helped to launch the Misdemeanor Diversion Program for juveniles charged with adult crimes to help young people build rehabilitative paths to productive adult livelihoods.
When I recognized the surprisingly high percentage of those whose driver’s licenses are revoked for financial reasons, I started the NC Driver’s License Restoration Project to help individuals become lawfully licensed. I then successfully advocated for a change in state law to make the system more fair for those revoked for financial reasons. The US Department of Justice called on me to testify as an expert on this topic in a federal case that overturned North Carolina’s Voter ID law.
I have also volunteered and held leadership positions on local homelessness, juvenile crime and NAACP committees, including as Volunteer Teen Court Judge in the Volunteers for Youth diversion court program, active Member of Orange County NAACP Criminal Justice Committee, Chair of the Orange County Juvenile Crime Prevention Council and Vice-Chair of the Orange County Partnership to End Homelessness.
I have strong 16-year career experience prosecuting cases of every type of offense from DWI to First Degree Murder. I take the responsibility of listening to victims of crime and supporting them through difficult traumas very seriously. I’m proud of my reputation for using the discretion entrusted in a DA to do that which is fair and just. I’m also proud to have earned public endorsements from 36 current and former public officials and the Progressive Democrats of Orange County, as well as the support of over 70 local attorneys because of my career track record, strong alignment with our community’s values and priorities as District Attorney.
3. What changes to the cash bail system, if any, do you support? Why? If you don’t support any changes, please explain why you think the current system is successful.
I believe the cash bail system should be abolished. The only factors for holding an individual charged with a crime pre-trial should be his/her risk to the community and flight risk before trial. That analysis should be made as an independent, non-financial decision. A cash bail system inequitably rewards individuals who can afford to pay bail and punishes those who cannot and is part of the larger criminalization of poverty issue I have fought against for my entire career.
Judges have the authority to set bail in the court system, but as DA I would require all assistant DAs to recommend alternatives to secured bonds (i.e. pre-trial release supervision, treatment programs, electronic monitoring) whenever possible with the exception of cases where there’s a deemed risk to the community or risk of flight.
4. Do you support the expanded use of citations as an alternative to arrests? Under what circumstances do you believe citations should be issued?
Yes, a citation allows for a lower level of life disruption than a traditional arrest process. In North Carolina citations are legally permissible alternatives for certain misdemeanor offenses. I support the use of citations for cases where there is not a risk of ongoing community threat.
5. What do you think is the most effective way to deal with low-level drug offenders? What are or what would be your policies regarding plea bargaining in drug offense cases?
Drug abuse is a public health issue and should be addressed when possible through treatment, not incarceration. For low-level drug offenses, deferral and deflection should be the rule. Whenever possible, low-level drug offenses should be deflected to substance use disorder treatment pre-charge, and I would encourage our law enforcement partners to follow that practice. For charged low-level drug offenses, I support a therapeutic and rehabilitative approach, including deferrals or routing through a therapeutic court, like our district’s Recovery Court program that I’ve long supported, that utilizes substance abuse treatment in lieu of traditional criminal justice consequences.
6. In terms of juvenile justice, what do you believe can be done to prevent delinquency and gang involvement?
I don’t believe in the criminalization of children. We shouldn’t want children branded as “criminals” before adulthood and we should instead help them access rehabilitative paths out of the criminal justice system and into productive adulthoods whenever possible.
I was a longtime advocate of the “Raise the Age” law change to end adult prosecution of 16-17 year-olds that was finally passed in 2019. I have helped create and participate in several juvenile diversion programs, including as a volunteer Teen Court Judge in the Volunteers for Youth diversion program since 2007. I also helped to launch the Misdemeanor Diversion Program for juveniles charged with adult crimes in our district and served as Member, Vice-Chair and Chair of the Orange County Juvenile Crime Prevention Council from 2008 to 2014.
As District Attorney, I have committed to expunge all juvenile criminal records eligible in our district under the Second Chance Act in order to help young people focus on productive adulthoods out of the criminal justice system. I will continue to utilize diversion and therapeutic juvenile court programs and rehabilitative approaches for youth charged with crimes to access pathways to positive adult livelihoods and create better societal outcomes for all.
7. As an assistant DA, how have you dealt with fatal use of force by the local police? If you are a challenger, how well do you think the former DA has dealt with use of force by local law enforcement officers?
The DA’s office serves an important oversight function of law enforcement. While we should have a cooperative and collaborative relationship with law enforcement, everyone, including most police, expect us to hold those that engage in misconduct fully accountable. As an assistant DA I have had the responsibility of reviewing cases of use of deadly force by law enforcement, and I take that responsibility very seriously. In all cases, including those involving law enforcement, the duty of the DA is to look at the facts and to seek justice. A DA should never lose sight of the primary objective of justice above all else.
8. It has been more than a decade since North Carolina executed anyone, and there is no one who was sentenced in Orange County on death row. Do you support capital punishment? Under what circumstances would you think it proper to seek the death penalty?
In the first week of my campaign for District Attorney, I announced a very important decision and shared it in a self-recorded video. I have publicly committed not to seek the death penalty if elected as DA.
Ultimately, a jury decides whether to impose the death penalty, but the DA has the discretion to seek or not seek it. If elected, the DA’s Office I run in Chatham and Orange Counties will not seek the death penalty. I’m making this decision because the death penalty goes against the values I hold and because of what I’ve learned in my 16 years of experience in the court system.
Here’s why I’m against the death penalty:
– It is the only punishment we can’t undo. You can let someone out of prison, but you can’t un-kill them.
– It is cruel. No matter the actual means of how you physically end someone’s life, there’s nothing more inhumane than telling someone when they’re going to die, then taking them into a room, strapping them down and killing them. Regardless of what that person did, I hold myself and our government to a higher standard than vicious murderers.
– It is racist. Defendants of color are far more likely to receive the death penalty than white defendants, and those convicted of killing black victims are less likely to be sentenced to death than those with a white victim. While we work to make the criminal justice system more fair and equitable overall, we need to stop killing people of color.
– It is not a deterrent. Research shows no evidence that jurisdictions with the death penalty have a lower violent crime or murder rate than those without. – It is expensive. It’s actually less expensive for our society to imprison someone for life than to execute the death penalty.
But what about victims of violent crime and families left behind by murder? Sadly, I have sat and cried with victims and their families in grief many times over the past 16 years. Listening to victims is a responsibility I take very seriously as DA. But the death penalty does not provide closure to victims. Decades or life in prison can allow victim’s families to move on, while the death penalty triggers years of appeals. We can seek justice without the death penalty.
The death penalty is a complicated societal issue, one that I am ready to discuss in greater depth with our community members. But for the reasons briefly cited above and more, I will not seek the death penalty in this district. And as an ADA I’ve never sought the death penalty in any cases I’ve handled. I hope our district can lead the state and the nation in taking a stance against the death penalty.
9. Identify and explain one principled stand you would be willing to take if elected that you suspect might cost you some points with voters.
I already know for certain—given community member outreach and response upon my public announcement—that I have lost votes in my district because of my decision that I will not seek the death penalty in any case if elected as District Attorney. While I respect each community member’s view on the issue, I uphold my decision and reiterate the reasons I’ve publicly outlined on my campaign website that I will not seek the death penalty in our district.