Name as it appears on the ballot: Josephine Kerr Davis
Campaign website: https://josephineforjustice.com/about/
Phone number: (919) 949-7558
Years lived in the district: 40
1. What do you believe are the three most important qualities a judge must have to be effective? Are there any particular judges, either on the state or federal level, who you believe exemplify these qualities?
The three most important qualities for a judge are:
- Judicial Temperament
Former Cumberland County Superior Court Judge Gregory Weeks is a judge who exemplifies these qualities. Judge Weeks embodies courage and compassion and was always willing to do what justice required, even when the course was not popular. Most notably, Judge Weeks presided over the first and only challenges brought under North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act; he also used his position to call for a reform in capital jury selection based upon a distortion of the role of race in jury selection. His experience, education and courage to apply the letter of the law in a thoughtful manner allowed the accused to appeal their death sentences and receive life sentences provided there was evidence of racial bias in sentencing.
As an Assistant Public Defender in Fayetteville, advocating for individuals charged with felony offenses, I was always impressed with the manner that Judge Weeks treated courtroom personnel, attorneys, the accused, and victims. As a mentor, Judge Weeks taught me about using your position and experiences to transform the lives of others and to seek justice for all. Because of Judge Weeks and the work he accomplished with regards to commuting death row sentences, I understand and embrace the power of exercising “just mercy”.
2. What do you believe qualifies you to serve as a judge?
With more than 15 years of both criminal and civil experience, I have seen every side of our justice system – as an assistant public defender, a prosecutor, an assistant attorney general, and an appeals hearing officer. I am committed to fairness and equity and have been a relentless advocate for the voiceless, forgotten, and mistreated. I began my career at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, working alongside attorneys committed to representing impoverished men and women sentenced to death. My commitment to service continued as I zealously advocated for justice involved individuals, charged with both felonies and misdemeanors, as an assistant public defender. Now, as a prosecutor, I seek justice for victims while still recognizing that our system should rehabilitate, offer additional chances, and should not excessively sentence the accused.
In addition to criminal matters, Superior Court Judges also preside over civil matters. At the Land Loss Prevention Project, I assisted attorneys who represented African-American and female farmers who were discriminated against by the Department of Agriculture on the basis of race and sex. In addition, I also worked as an Assistant Attorney General with the North Carolina Department of Justice and was assigned to the Civil Division. There, I represented the State with regards to violations of labor and environmental laws. Finally, as a quasi-judicial official with the Employment Security Commission, I presided over unemployment insurance benefit hearings, and rendered thoughtful decisions based on the law. My civil litigation experience ensures that I will be able to appropriately balance competing interests in weighty civil suits. I remain committed to seeking truth and justice in the civil arena.
My civic engagement demonstrates my commitment to the community that raised me and speaks volumes regarding my judicial philosophy. I am a wife and a mother who lives and works in this community, and I have been devoted to working with organizations that are geared towards improving the lives of this community and beyond. As a member of the People’s Alliance, Junior League, Jack and Jill of America, Inc. and Durham Democratic Women, I am committed to addressing economic inequality, the shortage of affordable housing, race and gender inequality, and educational disparities. In addition, as a former instructor with Durham Technical Community College, Kaplan University and the University of Phoenix, I remain committed to the legal profession and have demonstrated my understanding and mastery of the law.
- body of work has been built on experiences, both personally and professionally that make me uniquely qualified for this position. In law school, I was a member of a group that started the Know Your Rights Project, geared towards educating communities of color about their rights with respect to police stops, searches and seizures. As an attorney, I spearheaded the Driving Restoration Program in partnership with the City of Durham, where I helped individuals whose licenses were revoked based upon their inability to pay court costs and fees. As a product of our community, I have always had a heart for Durham and I am committed to seeking justice. I am committed to reforming our system to one that is not built on chance and wealth but that is built on the justice we need with the compassion and integrity we deserve.
3. In a sentence, how would you define your judicial philosophy?
My judicial philosophy is rooted in the principle that justice requires accountability for one’s actions and mercy for our mistakes.
4. How do you define yourself politically? How do your political beliefs affect your judicial approach?
As a liberal, it is my firm belief that the overarching responsibility of the government is to ensure equal opportunity and equality for all. From a historical perspective, the fabric of this country is deeply woven with threads that have disenfranchised, discriminated and silenced the voices and freedoms of the non-majority. Thus, as a liberal, I believe that the role of the judiciary is to ensure equality for all of those who are justice involved. Throughout my career, I have been guided by the principle that my responsibility is to fight for justice, fairness and equality. If elected to serve as a Superior Court Judge, I will be guided by the responsibility to follow the law; however I recognize that with judicial discretion comes the responsibility to be firmly planted on the side of equality and fairness.
5. 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 merits another term? N/A
6. On any given day, there are North Carolina resident in jail are not because they’ve been convicted of a crime but because they cannot afford their bail. How would you determine whether pretrial incarceration is appropriate? Do you support having a bail schedule with guidelines for how judges should make bail determinations? Why or why not?
In determining whether pretrial incarceration is appropriate, I will be guided by the law in North Carolina as well as the Pre-Trial Justice Institute which defines the 3 M’s of justice: maximize liberty; maximize public safety; maximize court appearance. Further, the Pre-trial Justice Institute defines that a pre-trial system has three basic obligations:
- Keep the public safe
- Ensure that individuals appear in court as needed
- And according to the U.S. Constitution, it must respect the presumption of innocence and not unfairly interfere with the freedom of people who have not been found guilty.
These guidelines address the factors a judicial official should balance in determining the conditions pretrial release. The North Carolina Superior Court Judge’s Benchbook, clearly states, “The statutory scheme expresses a preference for written promises, unsecured bonds, and custody releases.” Again, when there is even one defendant who poses no danger to a person, but is housed in the Durham County Jail, the Court system has failed to provide justice for our community.
The bond schedule is merely a suggestion that judicial officials may reference, however judicial officials should use their discretion and deviate from the suggested bond guidelines when imposing bond amounts that will restrict liberty and freedom. The accused, the victims and the facts are unique to each specific offense, thus a bond schedule, that isn’t revised annually, fails to provide equity for everyone in the community. Judges must be wary of the “one size fits all” method of setting bonds as this approach harms the community and is not rooted in equity and fairness. If elected, I will use my discretion to provide the fairness the schedule doesn’t naturally provide. Further, the bond schedule needs to be revised to provide stronger standards across the board, but until such time, after carefully weighing the factors set forth by the law, I will use my experience to set bonds that do not harm but that are equitable and fair.
7. 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.
The need for bail reform is an important conversation that must occur with social justice reformers, prosecutors, defense attorneys, elected officials, communities and grassroots organizations across the state. As a prosecutor, there has never been a time that I requested a cash-only bond. Relying heavily on my criminal defense experience, I understood the gravity of a cash-only bond, which requires gross financial capital for freedom. In my fifteen years of legal experience prosecuting violent and non-violent offenders, I have never experienced a situation where it was necessary to require a cash bond versus a secured bond. Thus, if elected I will have that same mind set with respect to cash bonds.
When addressing bonds according to the statute the Court must weigh the factors set forth in North Carolina General Statute 15A-534. I agree with the American Bar Association, who states “the law favors the release of defendants pending adjudication of charges. Deprivation of liberty pending trial is harsh and oppressive, subjects defendants to economic and psychological hardship, interferes with their ability to defend themselves, and, in many circumstances, deprives their families of support”. It has been well reasoned with Courts across the country that bail practices that result in incarceration based on poverty violate the Fourteenth Amendment.
There are definite cracks in the foundation of our current bond system that only impact those who are financially challenged, and we must as a community change the narrative. Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner stated it best, “we don’t imprison the poor in the United States for the so-called crime of poverty”. Again, if elected, I will uphold the law which according to State v. Thompson, 349 N.C. 483, 499, 500 (1998) “[I]t is beyond question that . . . liberty, is a fundamental right…The right to freedom prior to trial is reflected in the principle that there is a presumption of innocence in favor of the accused which is the undoubted law, axiomatic and elementary, and lies at the foundation of the administration of our criminal law.”
8. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, black people in North Carolina are incarcerated at six times the rate of white people, despite the state being majority white. What responsibility do you think judges hold in addressing racial disparities in our criminal justice system, and what would you do to address these inequities?
The Prison Policy Initiative further states that in North Carolina, there are 66,000 people behind bars and “people of color are overrepresented in prisons and jails”, these facts reveal the crisis that our community faces with respect to the over-incarceration that people of color face.
As a mother of two African-American boys, I recognize that judicial officials have a unique role with respect to addressing racial disparities and in turn ending mass incarceration which impacts communities of color. First and foremost, judges should be well versed in the law and guided by truly seeking justice which requires sentences that reflect accountability and mercy. Bryan Stevenson said it best, “the closer we get to mass incarceration and extreme levels of punishment, the more I believe it’s necessary to recognize that we need mercy, we all need justice, and perhaps-we all need some measure of unmerited grace.” More specifically, to address racial disparities, judges should encourage parties to participate in diversionary and restorative justice pleas as well as utilize probationary sentences coupled with mental health and substance abuse conditions. Judges also must recognize that tied to racial disparities are economic disparities, and judges must be mindful of the negative impact of excessive fines, fees, and costs. Judicial officials are in a position, like Judge Weeks was, to apply the law and render just decisions that address racial disparities and transform the criminal justice system. If elected, I will rely on my experiences as both a public defender and prosecutor to administer justice on a case by case basis, recognizing that the one size fits all approach to justice destroys lives.
As a judge one must be mindful of how unemployment, underemployment, over-policing and over-prosecution impacts communities of color. If elected, I am committed to listening to community partners and continuing to participate in trainings that address the mass incarceration crisis and the role of the judiciary. Moreover, I am mindful and committed to race-equity training, training that has already allowed me to make decisions as a prosecutor that are thoughtful and cognizant of how racism is deeply entrenched in the fabric of our community. I will continue to use that training as I am mindful of how over-policing and over-sentencing disrupts familial cohesion, causes recidivism and fosters intergenerational poverty.
9. In some cases, individuals who fail to appear in court for traffic violations are arrested and placed in jail, even if there is an arguable valid reason for the failure to appear. These arrests remain on the person’s record. Do you believe judges should ever overlook failures to appear for things like traffic violations? If so, in what circumstances? If not, why not?
Yes. After reviewing more than 3000 driving records, I have witnessed how Failure to Appear fees and Order for Arrests can create barriers to individuals driving with a valid driver’s license. Further, as the lead prosecutor for the Driver’s Restoration Program, I used my position to petition the Court to waive fines and fees. When an individual has had their license revoked and is levied with the costs associated with the civil restoration and criminal costs for failing to appear in court it speaks to the crisis of criminalizing poverty and access to justice. The Court, the State and other agencies should not tax people who don’t have financial means and who fail to appear in court, rather the Court should help to create opportunities for all who are justice involved. With respect to traffic court and failure to appears, the implications have negative collateral consequences that can impact housing, employment and educational opportunities.
The Court must ensure that poverty is not criminalized and levying fines and fees can negatively impact those involved with the justice system. The Court can and should assess an individual’s ability to pay before levying fines and fees. Oftentimes an individual’s financial means has not improved since the issuance of a warrant, thus the accused would still lack financial means. The General Assembly has not made it impossible to waive costs, fees and fines and in State v. Patterson (223 N.C. App. 180 (2012), the Court of Appeals opined that it is reversible error for the court to operate under the mistaken impression that it has “no discretion but to charge court costs.” The Court must take every opportunity to make sure that we do not criminalize poverty.
10. Do you support restorative justice practices prior to sentencing? If so, please explain what sort of practices you support and in what types of cases? Who should be eligible?
According to the Centre for Justice and Reconciliation, restorative justice compares well with the outcomes of traditional justice. As an Assistant District Attorney, I was proud of the felony restorative justice pleas that were extended this year. These outcomes provide closure for all parties and allow the system to work in a manner that is far too often not explored. Research shows that restorative justice is beneficial for both victims and the offenders in that it reduces repeat offending more than prison for adults; it helps reduce the costs of criminal justice; it provides both victims and offenders with more satisfaction that justice has been done; and most importantly it reduces crime victims’ post-traumatic stress symptoms and the related costs. ((Sherman, LW and Strang, H (2007) Restorative Justice: The Evidence. London: The Smith Institute))
11. How do you believe low-level drug cases should be handled?
On a state and national level, it is evident that the “war on drugs” has led to the mass incarceration and excessive sentencing of thousands of justice involved residents. In his July 2015 speech to the NAACP, President Obama insisted that “the real reason our prison population is so high” is that “over the last few decades, we’ve also locked up more and more nonviolent drug offenders than ever before, for longer than ever before…” The “war on drugs,” he suggested, is just a continuation of America’s “long history of inequity in the criminal-justice system,” which has disproportionately harmed minorities.” (Stephan Bibas, The Truth about Mass Incarceration)
Low-level drug offenders are almost always addicts or engaged in the sale of drugs due to a lack of economic resources. Having worked on both sides of the criminal justice system, I know better than most that justice can be achieved through the rehabilitation of individuals. We have the responsibility of rehabilitation, which means giving justice involved individuals the tools and the resources they need to be successful. Criminalizing addiction and poverty, creates an impossible barrier to treatment and economic empowerment. Communities of color and low wealth communities have been destroyed by the “war on drugs.” If elected, I will advocate for more funding for drug court and encourage parties to use this valuable resource. In addition, as stated earlier, I am committed to “just mercy”; we must move away from the notion that active sentences and secured bonds are appropriate for low-level drug offenders, to the contrary it destroys the familial unit, education opportunities, and economic empowerment.
12. In North Carolina, court fees have increased 400 percent over the past twenty years, and nonpayment may be punished with more fees, license revocation, or jail time. Do you believe the justice system in North Carolina criminalizes poverty? If not, please explain. If yes, what would you do as a judge to mitigate that?
The criminalization of poverty is a crisis across the country. The Court must ensure that poverty is not criminalized and levying fines and fees can negatively impact those involved with the justice system. The Court can and should assess an individual’s ability to pay before levying fines and fines. If elected, I will support any policies or legislative changes that will end a user-funded criminal justice system. Specifically, I am in favor of the bench card policy adopted by Mecklenburg County which assesses an individual’s ability to pay. Our current system has often been referred to by the community as a debtor’s prison, we have to change this narrative. The court process can have a negative financial impact, both now and in the future.
The law allows judges to use their judicial discretion to waive fines and fees. The General Assembly has not made it impossible to waive costs, fees and fines and in State v. Patterson (223 N.C. App. 180 (2012), the Court opined that it is reversible error for the court to operate under the mistaken impression that it has “no discretion but to charge court costs.” If elected, I am committed to I am committed to rendering thoughtful decisions that assess an individual’s ability to pay.