Orange/Chatham DA candidates Jeff Nieman (l) and Kayley Taber. 

Orange-Chatham District Attorney candidates Jeff Nieman and Kayley Taber appeared before religious and nonprofit leaders last month to explain how they plan to reform the criminal justice system. 

The forum, attended by more than 350 community members, was organized by nonprofits Orange County Justice United and the North Carolina Congress of Latino Organizations. The intention was to “build public relationships of accountability” with the candidates and hear from them about their commitment to bringing reform if elected, according to a press release. 

“The DA is one of the most powerful elected officials in our local justice system,” the Rev. Dr. George Crews III said during the event. “The reality is, they hold our lives in their hands. They alone can decide who gets prosecuted.”

Religious and nonprofit leaders in Orange County originally met two years ago, following the murder of George Floyd. Last month, community members met again to “follow through” on their commitment to “organize our power for justice in Orange and Chatham counties’ justice system,” Crews said.  

Crews reminded the assembly that Black and brown people are disproportionately punished by the justice system, both nationally and in local communities. There have been fewer options for minorities for treatment, therapy, and diversion programs that allow rehabilitation.

“We need someone who will not pervert justice and who is not biased,” Crews said. 

This District Attorney election marks the first time in 20 years that Orange and Chatham counties have two new candidates running for office. Current DA Jim Woodall last year announced he wouldn’t seek reelection after more than 15 years in office. The purpose of the assembly was to ask candidates to commit to increasing transparency, equity, and opportunity for diversion and rehabilitation in the local justice system within one year of being accepted into office.  

Specifically, nonprofit leaders asked the candidates to:

— create a public statement to assist the public in understanding the DA’s work, the services the office offers, and the principles it uses in decision making;

— gather data on plea deals and track for racial disparities;

— help reduce incarceration and involvement with the criminal justice system by declining to prosecute minor drug offenses, directing people toward diversion and substance abuse programs, and creating a sentencing review process; 

— end racially biased and wealth-based pretrial detention, specifically by not requesting cash bail unless the defendant is a flight risk or danger to the community, and aligning cash bail amounts to the accused’s ability to pay;

— agree to the continuance of the diversion program for drivers whose only offense is driving without a license;

— agree to follow-up meetings in six months and one year of being elected.  

Nieman and Taber both said “yes” to each demand, explaining their responses in a four-minute window following the Q&A. 

“I have run a campaign that is centered on ending the criminalization of poverty, racial disparities in the justice system, criminalization of our youth,” Nieman said, adding that the values and priorities in each of the proposals matched his own. 

Nieman said he is committed to abolishing cash bail, saying, “the amount of money [someone has] shouldn’t be the decider whether they are inside or outside the jail.” 

He added that he believes substance use disorder is a public health issue and he wants to move toward regulation and legalization of marijuana. 

Taber opened by saying her life experience should give voters a reason to trust her. She detailed her personal experience with family members who have been to prison, family members who suffer from mental illness, and the fact that she’s against the death penalty even as she’s lost a family member over 30-years-ago to violent crime. 

“Why should you trust me? I’ve lived a life of varied experiences,” Taber said.  

Taber ended her time by noting that she doesn’t have all the answers, but that she’s been digging into the data dashboard every day to figure out what is going on and what she can do about it.  

“You’re right. The numbers are not good,” Taber said. “Who do you trust to be in the most powerful criminal justice spot to do that? Me.” 

During the forum, activists also gave personal testimonials detailing their experiences with racism in the community.  

Shana Harper, a case manager for the Orange County criminal justice resource department, spoke about the importance of diversity in the DA offices and her experience being searched by security when she left her badge home one day despite the fact that she works there. 

Edward Scott, a peer support specialist for the straight talk support group, spoke about his own experiences dealing with inequality during his time incarcerated and the importance of speaking up for those who are still within the system and don’t have a voice. He also spoke about the importance of transparency and consistency when it comes to data in the court system and the importance of looking at racial injustices.

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