DA candidate would create advisory board

Mar. 27, 2014 @ 06:55 PM

Durham residents would have a new way to voice concerns about the court system if a candidate for district attorney is elected.

Roger Echols, chief assistant district attorney in Durham, said he’ll create a community advisory board and name a community liaison from his office if he becomes Durham’s top prosecutor in November.

Echols said the advisory board would include community groups, law enforcement and prosecutors who would hear citizens’ comments about how the courts and law enforcement are performing and how improvements could be made.

“I would do that to hold ourselves accountable for the things we do as an office,” he said.

Echols spoke Thursday to the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham at Shepherds House United Methodist Church on Driver Street.

He touched on several hot-button issues, including racial profiling and marijuana arrests.

“I support reviewing practices such as [police] roadblocks to determine where and how often these things are determined,” Echols said, alluding to complaints that Durham police have engaged in racial profiling at traffic stops. “This is a way we can deliver on the promise of equal protection under the law.”

Echols said he backs efforts by Durham Chief District Court Judge Marcia Morey to defer prosecution of 16- and 17-year-olds who are caught with small amounts of marijuana or commit other low-level, non-violent misdemeanors for the first time.

“The goal is to not hamper or hurt the futures of our youth because of bad choices,” he said.

“One reason a program like this is important is that it keeps young people from getting a record and coming to court, that cuts the recidivism rate. I would caution everyone that this is only a start. We should be doing everything we can to protect the future of our youths, and make sure that their errors in judgment don’t hurt their future.”

But Echols said those efforts aren’t enough.

“There are underlying societal problems in our communities that the justice system is not fully equipped to adequately handle,” he said, adding that recent budget cuts to programs that help young people have made the problem worse.

Echols said his office and law enforcement cannot by themselves solve youth-related problems that include drug addiction and poor choices, “but we can play a big part. We can let them know there are other alternatives to a life of crime, and get to those at risk before they’re involved in crime.”

Echols said his philosophy of justice is reflected in a quote from Mahatma Gandhi: “There is a higher court than courts of justice and that is the court of conscience. It supersedes all other courts.”

Added Echols: “We should strive everywhere to raise the standards of our courts of justice to be equal to the higher standard of conscience.”

Echols faces two challengers for district attorney in the May 6 primary: Brian Aus, a criminal defense attorney, and Mitchell Garrell, a former prosecutor in the Durham County District Attorney’s Office.