Editor’s note: This story was produced through a partnership between the INDY and The 9th Street Journal, which is published by journalism students at Duke University’s DeWitt Wallace Center for Media & Democracy.
Durham District Attorney Satana Deberry says many people mistakenly believe all crimes are the same, that if “somebody pees in your yard, they’ll come back and kill you the next day.”
The reality, though, is that “somebody who pees in your yard usually has housing issues, substance abuse issues, all these other things that are harder to deal with if you have a criminal record.”
In a wide-ranging interview with reporters and editors fromThe 9th Street Journal on Sunday, the new DA said her goal is to prioritize prosecutions of violent crime but show more restraint about prosecuting people for lesser crimes. She has implemented a policy that no longer seeks cash bail for most non-violent misdemeanors and low-level felonies. Her goal is to avoid penalizing people who cannot afford to pay.
Deberry says her reforms are beginning to show results. She says she has slashed average jail stays from nineteen days four years ago to about five days in her first six months in office. She also has expanded programs to bring together victims and defendants to help them move forward.
A former defense attorney and housing advocate, Deberry is part of a wave of progressive prosecutors hoping to address mass incarceration and racial disparities in the halls of justice. Deberry says it’s important to consider the consequences of giving people a criminal record.
“A criminal record is a huge barrier for people,” she said. “We want to think about when we create criminal records for people why we do and then focus our resources on the most violent crimes that are happening in Durham.”
Her first six months have brought a lot of turnover: About half of her office has been replaced since she beat incumbent Roger Echols. She said she interviewed everyone in the office and gave them all the chance to talk to her. Some chose to leave. Others chose to stay, didn’t like her work, and later left.
After graduating from Duke Law School in 1994, Deberry became a criminal defense attorney. She hated prosecutors. Now, she’s one of them.
“If a prosecutor told me the sky is blue, I would have to walk outside because I would think they lied,” Deberry said.
Given her background and approach to systemic discrimination, she was skeptical when people pushed her to run for district attorney. She decided to run after doing research and concluding that it was possible to put more emphasis on prosecuting violent crime and helping victims.
She says she’s reorganized the office to create more specialization among the prosecutors. Her office now has six teams, including a homicide and violent crime unit, so prosecutors are more fluent in the law and “intelligence” around their topic. Other teams include a drug and property crime unit, a traffic team and a special victims unit.
One of the challenges Deberry’s reorganized office has faced was grappling with a homicide backlog of nearly one hundred cases. In her first half-year in office, she closed twenty-two cases, fifteen by getting guilty verdicts, according to a report from her office.
But she said there was heartache from other cases that her office had to dismiss because of a lack of evidence. That was particularly hard on family members of people killed and it can undermine confidence in the office.
Deberry said she also wants to continue to expand its restorative justice efforts that unite victims and defendants in hopes of healing.
“Every defendant is a member of our community. Whether they go to prison or not, at some point they return to our community,” Deberry said. “So how do we repair this violation so people are able to move on with their lives even after they’ve been held accountable?”
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