Durham District Attorney Satana Deberry
Durham District Attorney Satana Deberry Credit: Courtesy of Satana Deberry

Name as it appears on the ballot:  Satana Deberry

Campaign website: www.deberry4da.com

Party affiliation: Democrat

Years lived in Durham County: 23 

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?

Violent crime has increased nationwide – Durham is no different. It is a consistent challenge to manage the prosecution of serious and violent crime – especially as evidence in those cases becomes more complicated with the addition of digital evidence.  Priorities around violent crime are:

  • continue to work closely with law enforcement to review shootings and homicide cases before charges are filed so that the DA’s Office can bring strong cases for prosecution
  • use data driven, evidence-based approaches to identifying the small number of people who are drivers of violence 
  • work with community partners to support and expand existing violence interruption programs

The Durham County District Attorney’s Office webpage features even more about what we are doing.  https://medium.com/durham-district-attorneys-office

Additionally, recruiting and retaining staff is increasingly difficult. Durham is a fast-growing county which is quickly becoming less affordable on moderate salaries. Starting salaries for prosecutors and staff is much lower than those same people can make in private practice. Starting salaries in the Durham DA’s Office for prosecutors are $55,000/yr. Starting salaries for support staff can be as low as $36,000/yr.  As you can imagine, this makes recruitment for the office difficult. Prosecutors in my office receive a great deal of responsibility early and are exposed to a wide range of complicated legal issues.  Some are running the administration of court or learning to supervise other lawyers and staff in the office.  As the Elected, it is my goal to provide them with a range of valuable legal and organizational development skills. This attention to their professional development increases their market value and ability to make more money elsewhere.  This makes keeping experienced prosecutors difficult. Fortunately, over my three years in office, there have been many top-notch candidates interested in working in the Durham DA’s Office because of our organizational culture rooted in values, ethics, transparency, and innovation.  Otherwise, it is increasingly difficult to recruit and retain qualified prosecutors.

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.

In addition to being the incumbent DA and running the office since 2019, I have been managing large policy making staffs and advising other organizations on leadership and organizational development for twenty years. For the past three years, I have managed the District Attorney’s Office through an unprecedented worldwide pandemic. During my tenure, the office has accomplished some impressive organizational goals such as:

  • One of the few jurisdictions in NC to never shut down courts
  • Never shut down grand jury proceedings
  • Never shut down essential proceedings related to the liberty and due process of people charged with crimes
  • Resumed in person trials in January 2021 before most of the state
  • Eliminated case backlog in District criminal and traffic court
  • Dedicated hundreds of staff and ADA hours to training and continuing legal education

Related to staffing, I have made hires that make the DA’s office look more like Durham.  Before 2019, irrespective of who the elected DA was, the prosecutors and staff in the office all looked the same. Most of the prosecutors were white men and most of the staff were white women. Today, the prosecutors in my office have more racial, ethnic, language and sexual orientation diversity. More than half the Assistant District Attorneys are people of color with the number of black women increasing the most and the number of black men increasing at a close second.  The DA’s Office also has twice as many Spanish language speakers as it did when I took office.

Under my leadership, the DA’s Office now has a formal internship program that recruits and trains law students from NC law schools and beyond. It has become a national model for introducing more diverse lawyers into the prosecutor pipeline. Equity is not just about changing what we do in the present – it is about creating equitable opportunities for the future.

3. If you are challenging an incumbent, what decisions has the incumbent made that you most disagree with? If you are an incumbent, what in your record and experience do you believe entitles you to another term?

When I ran in 2018, I promised to bring progressive values to a fair and just approach to prosecution in Durham County; to focus on prosecuting the most serious and violent crimes; to divert people with mental health problems and substance abuse issues from the criminal legal system; to reduce the mass incarceration of black and brown people; to pay more attention to the needs of victims and witnesses; to focus on racial equity and be more transparent about how the DA’s Office works; to reduce reliance on cash bail; to reduce the pretrial detention of people accused of low level crimes; and to interrupt the school-to-prison pipeline. The office has accomplished all these things and more while becoming a national leader in the reform of the criminal legal system. 

Under my leadership, the Durham DA’s Office:

  • Restructured the office to assign more staff to the prosecution of violent crimes.
  • Was the first prosecutor’s office in the state to agree to sentencing relief for vulnerable people in state prisons considering the risks posed by COVID-19
  • Participated in and contributed to the development of a first-of-its-kind study on prosecutorial discretion and plea arrangements that is now in place in multiple prosecutors’ offices around the country. 97% of criminal cases nationwide are resolved by plea bargain. Our plea tracker helps ensure that people charged with the same offense are receiving pleas in an equitable manner across race.  
  • Subject of a 2021 study that looked at 35 jurisdictions, including Durham, that elected reform-minded prosecutors and found our policies had no significant effect on crime — including murder. Reforms studied included reducing cash bail or pretrial detention, declining to prosecute certain low-level offenses, and diverting people who need treatment out of court.
  • Developed roundtable meetings between DA’s Office staff and our counterparts at Durham Police Department to enhance communication, coordination, and success in serious and violent cases.
  • Worked with the Vera Institute to organize racial equity training for stakeholders across Durham’s criminal legal system – resulting in the first Motion for Justice Racial Equity Training Day.
  • With the DEAR Program, successfully petitioned the court to waive $2.7 million in unpaid traffic court debt providing thousands of our neighbors the opportunity to restore their drivers’ licenses after they were suspended for inability to pay.
  • Successfully petitioned the court to expunge more than 6,000 charges for over 2,100o people who were 16 or 17 years old at the time of their offense but prosecuted as adults before NC raised the age of juvenile jurisdiction in 2019.
  • Diverted school-based offenses from court. 
  • Established a Victim’s Clothing Lending Closet.
  • For the first time, secured county funding to pay courthouse parking fees for crime victims, witnesses, and their families while attending court or meeting with the office.
  • In partnership with the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham, launched quarterly meetings with the families of victims in pending homicide cases to share information and build community.
  • With the Criminal Justice Resource Center, launched a Post-Arrest Diversion program to support people charged with lower-level felonies avoid future offenses. Yearend data shows that only one participant has been dismissed from the program.
  • Developed a summer internship program now being used as a model for offices across the country.
  • Certified hundreds of U-Visa petitions for immigrant victims of crime.
  • Since 2020, began certifying T-Visa petitions for immigrant victims of human trafficking.
  • Demonstrated a deep commitment to hearing from community members – including justice-impacted neighbors – and community organizations about their needs and aspirations by participating ongoingly in community events, forums, etc.  
  • Prioritized learning where appropriate from other jurisdictions and from research to take a data-driven approach to launching new initiatives and strengthening existing work.
  • Put Durham County on the national map as a leader in the reform of the criminal legal system – a model for what is possible when we all come together to create a more vibrant community

4.  Recently, gun violence has proliferated in communities across the nation, including in Durham County. How should the DA’s office focus resources to addressing violent gun crime and prosecuting offenders?

Like many communities, Durham saw an increase in homicides last year, even as most other types of crime and overall violent crime were down – many categories by double digits. I do not say this to trivialize the recent increase in violence – but rather to underscore how pervasive, tragic, and unacceptable it is – and how badly we need better solutions.

In 2020, cities with higher poverty and unemployment rates experienced greater increases in crime, suggesting much of the increase was due to economic stress and inequality, rather than reform. Both cities that rejected and pursued reforms saw similar increases in homicides and violent crime. 

As I have consistently demonstrated since 2019, the number one priority of my office is the prosecution of serious and violent crime. I have reinforced that commitment in numerous visible and concrete ways.

  • I have restructured the office to assign more staff to the prosecution of violent crimes.
  • As part of that restructuring, I have reorganized the office into teams that specialize in a practice area and that receive intensive legal and ethical training tailored to their practice area: 
  • The DA’s Office holds regular roundtable meetings with the Durham Police Department (DPD) Homicide Unit to address intelligence and resource needs.  This has resulted in stronger cases and fewer charge dismissals.
  • Our Office partnered with DPD to create one of the country’s most effective Sexual Assault Kit Initiatives to quickly process current sexual assault cases and prosecute cold case assaults.
  • The Office has a consistent practice of seeking court-ordered forfeiture of guns used in crimes and present in domestic violence situations. This prohibits defendants from being able to ask for guns back after their case is closed and allows the guns to be used by law enforcement to help solve other cases. 
  • The Office has also initiated regular consultation with the US Attorney’s Office to identify cases that involve gun trafficking or violence

We know what works to reduce violence – proven and promising strategies already exist. But we need to work together and invest in those solutions long-term. I support continued investments in programs like Bull City United and other violence interruptions programs that stop conflict before it escalates into violence.

5.  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.

One of the first things I did in office was issue a pretrial release policy that ADAs in my office follow in court. Here is a summary of the policy:

Prosecutors recommend bond, and judges ultimately set bond. We do not have a “no cash bond” system in Durham, or anywhere in North Carolina. We have worked in Durham to reduce the use of cash bond and pretrial detention in lower-level cases where there is no risk to public safety, while reserving pretrial detention for serious and violent cases.

  • In cases that do not involve violence, it is our policy in the DA’s Office to recommend that people be released pretrial without having to post a secured bond (so for example, we’d be asking that they be released with a written promise to appear in court, or with an unsecured bond which only needs to be paid if the person misses court). When people pose no safety risk, we want to ensure they are not detained pretrial simply because they don’t have the money to post bond.
  • Our policy is to only ask for secured bond in cases that do involve violence, which make up a small (about 12%) but important part of our overall caseload. In these cases, prosecutors can and do advocate for high secured bonds and even no bond when warranted and allowed by law. This mirrors state law, which instructs judges to only require secured bond when none of the other options will ensure public safety, ensure the person returns to court, and prevent interference with court process, such as witness intimidation.

6. Do you support the expanded use of citations as an alternative to arrests? Under what circumstances do you believe citations should be issued?

Yes, I support the expanded uses of citations. Citations should be used for traffic and misdemeanor cases that do not involve injury or death to a human victim.

7. 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?

My office consistently works to disrupt cycles of crime. To address the underlying causes behind low level offenses, the DA’s Office continues to divert some cases to specialty courts.  Cases in which substance use underlies the alleged conduct may be referred to Drug Treatment Court, a post-conviction specialty court that offers services in lieu of an active sentence. For cases involving serious and persistent mental illness, Mental Health Court offers participants wraparound services and dismissal of charges upon successful completion. In late 2021, the Criminal Justice Resource Center (CJRC) was awarded a federal grant to expand Mental Health Court and place a diversion coordinator in the DA’s Office in 2022.

The Post-Arrest Diversion Program (PAD) was created by the DA’s Office and CJRC in 2020 to hold people with prior histories of court involvement accountable, while connecting them to tools that help them avoid future offenses. The program targets lower-level felony cases. For each case, CJRC creates a tailored plan that may include Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, restorative justice, and/or treatment. Since the program launched in April 2020, 27 cases have been referred to PAD with 16 successful completions.

Prosecutors also work outside of these formal programs to ensure case resolutions are proportionate to the offense and promote success after disposition. This can include dismissing low-level charges in cases involving substance use, poverty, homelessness, or involving individuals with little to no prior criminal history. This can also include allowing people to earn dismissals or the opportunity to avoid incarceration if they follow certain requirements and do not face new charges.

Finally, my office has initiated many policies and programs to bring more equity to our decision-making processes. Internal office policy mitigates against creating first time felons in nonviolent cases and we solicit mitigation packages in instances in which that will occur.

8. In terms of juvenile justice, what do you believe can be done to prevent delinquency and gang involvement?

First, my office does not accept school-based referrals – those cases which can be handled through the school disciplinary process. Research shows that the number one indicator of involvement in the criminal legal system as an adult is involvement as a child. So, our office does everything we can to avoid the collateral consequences of prosecution. We only want to become involved when there has been violence or serious injury against another person.

Most juveniles accused of a crime are never referred to the District Attorney’s Office for prosecution.  In NC, children under 18 are referred to the Division of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (DJJDP).  Most cases are disposed of at that level with referrals to community or school-based resources.

When a young person is suspected of being involved in a more serious matter, the case will be referred to the District Attorney’s Office.  A juvenile Assistant DA will then decide if the case should be returned to DJJDP for community-based monitoring; adjudicated in juvenile court, where the case will be heard confidentially by a judge; or filed in Superior Court, where they will be treated as an adult.  Under NC law, people under the age of 18 who are charged with violent and serious crimes – like armed robbery or murder – must be heard in Superior Court. That means that anyone charged with a violent or serious crime must be charged as an adult. In those cases, our juvenile prosecutors are responsible for the prosecution of those cases. Unlike in many jurisdictions, the juvenile prosecutors in the Durham DA’s Office are experts not only in the prosecution of serious and violent crime but also in the trauma-informed practices best used in dealing with young people in court. In those cases, my office works to craft a disposition that balances accountability with regard to the severity of the crime and the person’s age.

9. As 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 incumbent DA has dealt with use of force by local law enforcement officers?

As DA, I have requested SBI investigation of the fatal use of force incidents during my term. The investigation is then reviewed by me and at least one other prosecutor before a decision is made. In all cases, the family of the victim is notified first of any decision.

10. It has been more than a decade since North Carolina executed anyone, and there is no one who was sentenced in Durham County on death row. Do you support capital punishment? Under what circumstances would you think it proper to seek the death penalty?

No, I do not support capital punishment. I have not in the past three years and will not in the future use capital punishment. There are no circumstances in which my office would seek the death penalty.

11. 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 do not think I can identify one principled stand that might cost me votes because I have spent the last three years taking many principled stands.  My commitment to reform leaves me open to having my leadership and policies purposefully misunderstood. There are people who resist a fairer and more just system because they benefit from the fear and pain this system constantly recycles. If locking people up made us safe, we would be the safest country in world.  We are not safe because we destabilize communities by continuously and consistently locking up people for low level things while steadfastly refusing to address the root causes of the violent crime so many black and brown people face.

I am committed to justice, and I know the DA’s Office under my leadership is doing the right thing. As a parent, I am willing to engage over and over in the discussion about why I think what we are doing is right. But at the end of the day, I am willing to take the criticism because I believe in what we are doing and have seen the positive impacts firsthand.  Not only through the data and research but in the lived experiences of members of our community.  People often come up to me in the grocery store or at events and tell me how their lives or the lives of their friends or family were changed for the better by the work we do.