District attorneys are among the most powerful but least scrutinized decision makers in our criminal legal system. Voters who care deeply about criminal justice in Wake County should know where each candidate stands on critical issues that have lasting effects beyond our community: what happens here sets the tone for every county in our state and the NC General Assembly.
As part of our work to end mass incarceration and the racial, economic, and health inequities to which it is inextricably connected, we reached out to voters in Wake County to learn which issues among our priorities they felt were most important. According to our polling, 65 percent of voters think it’s important to have a district attorney who pledges to reduce mass incarceration – something which is in their power. Above all, there were three issues that consistently topped their lists: arrests and prosecution for possession of small amounts of marijuana, the use of the death penalty for those suffering from severe mental illness, and life sentences without the possibility of parole for children under 18.
Some argue that only state law can change how these important issues are handled in Wake County. In fact, the district attorney has great power of discretion in deciding how people are charged, prosecuted, and sentenced. For many reasons, including resource constraints, district attorneys must exercise that discretion every day.
Take marijuana arrests—Black residents in Wake County are 3.4 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white residents, in spite of reporting similar rates of drug use. These sorts of low-level marijuana convictions often lock people out of jobs, housing, and education. District attorneys’ choices on how—or if—to prosecute these cases can have a significant effect on racial equity and justice in our communities.
When it comes to seeking sentences for crimes, prosecutors have vast discretion. In North Carolina, more than 80 percent of children under 18 who have been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole are Black. District attorneys can prevent this injustice by simply seeking a life sentence with the possibility of parole, meaning a child sentenced to life could at least make the case for parole after years in prison.
Finally, district attorneys have the power to decide whether to pursue the death penalty. Some, including Buncombe County DA Todd Williams, have pledged never to seek a death sentence. This decision has not prevented that office from aggressively prosecuting homicides.
For decades, district attorneys have worked to pass laws increasing criminal penalties and to block laws to reform the system, which has contributed to North Carolina having one of the highest incarceration rates in the world. During this legislative session, the NC Conference of District Attorneys obstructed even basic progress by opposing several pieces of bipartisan legislation to eliminate juvenile life without parole, prohibit the death penalty for people with severe mental illness, expand access to criminal record expungements, compensate those exonerated after years in prison, and raise the minimum age at which young children can be prosecuted in juvenile court to 12 years old.
We don’t have to wait on politicians in the state legislature to address these issues—it is within the district attorney’s power to make our legal system more just, equitable, and fair for all Wake County residents right now.
District attorneys have the power to affect meaningful change in our criminal justice system, and we’re working to make sure voters have the information they need to choose a district attorney who will use the power of the office to make Wake County and North Carolina a more just, fair, safe, and equitable place for all of us.
Chantal Stevens is the executive director of the ACLU of North Carolina.
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