While campaigning last year to become Durham County’s district attorney, the reform-minded defense lawyer Satana Deberry promised to overhaul the way the criminal justice system operates by addressing mass incarceration, jail overcrowding, and racial disparities.
In late July, Deberry released a six-month report touting her office’s successes, noting nearly twenty policies designed to limit county residents’ involvement with the justice system, freeing it up to focus on serious crimes that harm community members.
The Ivy Leaguer and Duke Law graduate remains adamant about not using the jail to warehouse low-level offenders, the homeless, and those who are struggling with substance abuse or are unable to post bond.
“Keeping people out of prison who don’t belong there, prosecuting violent crime, and using our limited resources to address poverty, substance abuse, and helping to make Durham a safe place to live for all of us are at the heart of my policies,” Deberry says.
Deberry came to office amid a surge of reformist DAs across the country, including Rachael Rollins in Boston and Larry Krasner in Philadelphia—the latter of whom Deberry held up as a model—who argued that a system born from reactionary zero-tolerance, tough-on-crime policies was intrinsically racist and counterproductive, producing a carceral state that had ripped apart communities of color. Of course, these efforts haven’t come without resistance. In Philly, for example, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania—a Donald Trump appointee—has attacked Krasner for fostering “lawlessness” and a “new culture of disrespect for law enforcement.”
Shortly after taking office in January, Deberry revamped a pretrial-release policy that has led to fewer residents spending time in jail before their trial. That measure resulted in a 12 percent decline in the county-jail population. Her office also resolved twenty-two homicide cases as of July, an increase from the same period in 2018. To date, the DA’s Office says it has obtained convictions in twenty-five homicide cases this year.
Her office’s special victims unit, which Deberry created, attends monthly meetings with Durham police to review the results of sexual-assault evidence kits in an effort to bring closure to cases, many of which have gone unresolved for years. Her office waived unpaid traffic fines and fees for more than two thousand residents who lost their licenses at least two years ago, enabling them to once again become legal drivers. She refused to accept court referrals for school-based incidents, with rare exceptions for serious crimes, and she stopped threatening criminal charges against parents of students who miss school.
Deberry says that since late July, her office has focused on providing more resources for crime victims, particularly victims of domestic violence, sexual abuse, and human trafficking.
“They are the most vulnerable people in our community, and oftentimes, we forget about them,” Deberry says. “We know that research has shown that when you get a decline in gun violence, you still have homicides, and those victims tend to be the past victims of domestic violence. Victims of domestic violence are not random, and they have suffered before they have been killed. Domestic violence victims often grow up in homes where family violence is pervasive. They have witnessed violence in their own homes.”
Well over 90 percent of Durham’s homicide victims this year have been black men, often allegedly killed by other black men. Still, Deberry is concerned with the perception that black men are violent.
“There are plenty of young and black men who contribute to our community, who care about people in our community, and who are in the struggle to make our community better,” she says. All too often, stereotypes dictate “how we talk to them and how we deal with them. Oftentimes, they are victims themselves, but they are reluctant to come forward because they are perceived as hyper-masculine and hyper-violent, and I just don’t believe that about black men.”
Deberry says that, though the decline in the county’s jail population has “held pretty steady,” since her office’s reforms, “the numbers are up a little bit, but that’s because there have been some more folks charged with violent crimes.”
Indeed, Durham saw a rash of high-profile shootings this summer and fall, with at least thirty-six through the week of December 7, according to the Durham Police Department. That number is higher than the total for all of last year (thirty-one) and nearly double that of 2017 (nineteen). In one forty-eight-hour period in late October, two people were killed and eight others were wounded in a series of shootings at four locations, an outbreak of violence that became a flashpoint of the city’s November elections, with critics deriding the city council’s decision not to fund the additional officers Police Chief C.J. Davis had requested. (The incumbents won re-election.)
Next year, Deberry says, she’ll press ahead, prioritizing prosecutions that keep people safe rather than putting small-time offenders behind bars, emphasizing victims’ rights, and implementing reforms that stem from the Raise the Age law, which took effect December 1 and made North Carolina the last state in the U.S. not to automatically prosecute sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds as adults.
“We’re looking at different ways we can protect children in Durham County,” Deberry says. “We want to focus on getting kids what they need instead of locking them up.”
Contact staff writer Thomasi McDonald at firstname.lastname@example.org. This story has been updated with more recent homicide prosecution data and to clarify that the DA’s Office’s special victims unit, not Deberry, meets with the police department regarding rape kits.
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