Two people are challenging incumbent Roger Echols in the race for Durham County district attorney, with the political debates raising questions about bail reform, alternatives to prosecution and how much power the DA really has.
Echols, 45, has been a prosecutor for 20 years, including serving his first four-year term as the district attorney.
"What I have focused our prosecutors on is being thoughtful in coming up with decisions that are appropriate for our community, and in doing so we understand that every decision that we make involves competing interests,” he said.
Satana Deberry, 49, has worked for the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and the N.C. Housing Coalition, which she has led since 2013. From 1999 to 2000, she worked at a firm that focused on civil and criminal litigation and representing nonprofits.
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“I am running for district attorney because we need a culture change in Durham,” she said. “We can’t continue to call ourselves the most progressive city in the South and over prosecute people, hold people in the jail when they simply can’t afford bail.”
Daniel Meier, 45, has been a defense attorney for 16 years. Meier also worked in health care administration for about three years.
Meier said he wants to make the DA’s Office more efficient, moving cases along faster with prosecutors working with investigators sooner. One of the biggest issues right now is the jail.
“People shouldn’t sit in jail because they don’t have money. They need to be in jail because they are a threat to community, or unable to show up or for some other reason,” he said. “We also need to make sure we move the cases along. We have too many people who have been in jail for a year, two years, three years, four years, five years, waiting for their day in court.”
Early voting for this year’s primary began Thursday. The primary election is Tuesday, May 8. Only voters registered Democrat and unaffiliated can vote in the sheriff's primary — and the winner will not face any opposition in the November election — because there are no Republican candidates running.
The three candidates spoke at a Partners Against Crime forum. Here are their edited answers to questions there and a fourth question from The Herald-Sun.
Q: Bail guidelines are mandated by state law. What steps would you take to push for changes in the laws regarding bail schedules?
Echols: The thing that any of us could do is to ask the legislature to change the bond law because that is what regulates it. Locally, we can change bond schedules [which suggest bond ranges] and do things like that, but we have to understand that judges set the bond.
Often times there are people who get bonds that there are lower or higher than the bond schedule. But the tangible thing to do locally is to advocate for more funding to increase our pre-trial services. We have a pre-trial assessment tool that is geared to release people without compromising the safety of our community. Then more people can be released without any type of bond or unsecured bond.
Meier: The law requires a bail system, but ... the presumptive bond schedule is set by the senior resident superior court judge. Different counties have different bonds for different levels of offenses. So one of the things you could do is work with the judges to say for these crimes rather than have a $2,000 secured bond, we are going to presume it is $2,000 unsecured bond [for which no money is required.].
I agree with Mr. Echols. You do need to expand alternatives. It costs us $110 to $130 a day to house somebody in the jail. That doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for somebody who is in there on a $1,000 bond. You can either work on unsecuring the bond, or if that’s not appropriate and you still need to do monitoring, you can increase electronic monitoring, which costs about $11 a day.
Deberry: We do have to advocate in the legislature. We do have to work with the judges. But the district attorney is a constitutional officer. That means that person has 100 percent discretion in how they bring charges in court.
Something the district attorney can do is make sure people are not arrested and charged to start. That comes from having a clear and focused prosecutorial policy that you develop with the community, including the sheriff’s department, local police departments and community members. ... I think the real focus of the District Attorney’s office should be diverting people from the court system to begin with.
Q: What are your plans to improve or expand the current misdemeanor diversion program, and why are they better than those of your opponents.
Meier: One of my current plans would be to expand the age. Right now, it is 16 to 21. I think you should expand it to all ages.
Every case needs to be looked at on its own and [we have to] make sure there are appropriate consequences for the actions. Sometimes that is the misdemeanor diversions, sometimes that’s some other sort of deferral. Unfortunately, sometimes it is a conviction.
I would get rid of the artificial bar, meaning only people with first offenses are eligible. The misdemeanor diversion program has about a 98.99 percent success rate.. Beyond the misdemeanors, deferral and diversion programs for other charges can be looked at. We need to make sure it is appropriate consequences for the action.
Echols cuts his at 21. Deberry expands her much more broadly than I do. I am kind of in the middle on that path.
Deberry: You don’t just stop making bad decisions at 21, and substance abuse is one of the key issues. Those are the misdemeanors that are really clogging our courts.
I would expand the diversion program to include low-level felonies in which there is not gun violence, a victim or property damage. Everybody deserves a second chance, and certainly if you are actually reviewing cases as they come in and learning what the root cause of it is, you are able to administer fair justice.
Echols: The misdemeanor diversion program is part of a system that includes the district attorney and judges. And, just as importantly, if not most importantly, includes our law enforcement agencies. Diversion means that diverting people from actually being charged in the first place, which law enforcement plays the biggest part in charging people.
The 21 year rule is not my rule. When we capped it at 18 years, that was not mine either. From the beginning, I thought why are we capping this at all?
The charges that go into the misdemeanor diversion program, as well as the age, is up to the group. In other words, you can’t have the misdemeanor diversion program without the district attorney, but you also cannot have the program without law enforcement.
I would prefer there not be an age limit on it. And maybe we could even increase the number of offenses we put on it. But that has to be done working with other agencies.
Q: What do you see as the greatest challenge you will face in the role you are seeking?
Deberry: Culture change. We are used to talking about prosecutors as people who don’t look at the fair administrative of justice, who are really just heads down, being tough on crime, and I think the real challenge in our community is understanding the things that don’t keep us safe and the things that keep everyone safe.
I think the challenge will be with working with judges on coming up with diversion from court. The challenge will be working with law enforcement to understand the community in the way that they understand the community and being able to still understand that there are people experiencing challenges in their lives that are not appropriate for the criminal justice system. And that we need to move those things off of the plate of the police, sheriff, district attorney and provide more resources in the community for those people, so the district attorney can really focus on things like clearing the jail of people who have been there for five, six, seven years, and creating new and innovative ways to work with local law enforcement around keeping us all safe.
Echols: Violent crime continues to be a big challenge in our community and the amount of violent-crime prosecutions that we have. And also not just prosecuting those cases, but finding ways to lower the amount of individuals who participate in violent crime.
I have increased the numbers of prosecutors who prosecute violent crime — that had to do with moving resources elsewhere and prioritizing the prosecution of violent crime. We will also continue working at bettering relationships with law enforcement. The Police Department started the robbery task force, and they asked for one prosecutor. I gave them two.
That has helped in the better coordination of investigating and prosecuting robberies, particularly robberies with a dangerous weapon. It also has also helped us to look at other individuals who come to us — not by being charged with a violent crime — in recognizing they are at risk and working with them to make decisions that will put them in a better position not to get in that violent crime cycle.
Meier: I think the biggest challenge is essentially a combination. It is culture change, but it also going to have to be a change within the community. You have to get the community to buy into the changes and get you the resources to do what you need to do.
We like to talk about expanding mental health and drug treatment, but we need to expand those services for people to use before they get in the system.
We have a huge gun problem. We have a huge violent crime problem in Durham. We are not going to address that just through prosecution. The robbery task force is great. Unfortunately, as a defense attorney, my best defense in a violent crime is a reluctant witness. ... When it takes six months, a year, a year and a half, to get to trial, your witnesses have gotten intimidated. Your witnesses have gotten scared. Your witnesses have vanished.
You also just need to get cultural changes. You have got to get a lot of prosecutors and defense attorneys to buy into it, but I think it the relationship with law enforcement, the community and judges and clerks. Most of these decision we make, we have to have other people, and the biggest challenge is to have all those competing groups to get on board with what we are trying to accomplish for Durham.
Q: Please outline issues or actions that you think are being mischaracterized by other DA candidates.
Echols: I think the other candidates are framing issues that are important to criminal justice; however, they are framing them in a way that confuses or overstates the power of a DA.
For instance bail reform. ... DAs can give input into bond schedules. DAs can argue for bond conditions in specific cases, but the judge makes the decision — which is often adverse to the state’s position.
I also believe the other candidates are framing issues around bringing diversionary programs to the system in a way that inaccurately reflects what’s possible. Officers and civilians are the complainants for criminal warrants, not DAs. Over 99 percent of cases are initiated by warrant. Legally, diversion means diverting the action of an offender from being charged. Therefore any diversion depends on the willingness of law enforcement to divert.
Meier: Mr. Echols has proposed that Durham’s defense attorneys are to blame for the widespread delays in our trial schedule and stated most old cases have a trial date.
The DA has sole control of the calendar and can schedule cases with or without defense approval. There are more than 90 individuals awaiting trial on murder charges for about 60 victims. At present, about seven have been scheduled for trial.
(NOTE: Echols says the DA's Office does control the calendar, but local rules gives the senior resident superior court judge the authority to schedule cases. If a judge orders a court date, the DA can't usurp that order, he said. Every homicide date is set by order of the judge. The local rules also give defense attorneys equal opportunity to argue related issues before the court .)
Ms. Deberry’s platform mischaracterizes the extent of the district attorney’s power. For instance, the DA cannot unilaterally end cash bonds or refuse to charge certain cases. Nor can a DA simply choose who is prosecuted as an adult. The Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Act allows a DA to reduce high-level felony charges to H or I felonies or a misdemeanor to avoid prosecuting minors as adults. This would certainly be appropriate for many crimes.
But Deberry continues to pledge not to prosecute anyone under 18 as an adult. To do so would require Deberry to entirely disregard the law or reduce all charges obtained by minors. Reducing DWI, vehicular manslaughter, and first-degree murder charges to avoid adult prosecution would create dangerous collateral consequences.
(NOTE: In a follow-up interview, Deberry said she will not prosecute anyone under 18 as an adult for misdemeanors or low-level felonies.)
Deberry: The DA mischaracterizes his role in the limited reform in Durham courts. He touts misdemeanor diversion court as an example of his “balanced” approach.
However, that court was created by Rep. Marcia Morey when she was Chief District Court Judge. The restorative justice program has only one participant and came to light after this campaign began. Local groups working on reform have found him to be a hindrance rather than help.
(NOTE: In an interview, Morey said it was a group effort and Echols was an integral part. “We needed the [DA’s Office], and they were very supportive, and they helped make it possible.” Echols said the one case that Deberry refers to started the restorative justice process about a year ago, and at least two other people with felonies have started the process.)
The DA mischaracterizes his role/discretion as policy maker. Despite his time in office and programs, the outcomes around the prosecution of black, brown, and poor people has not changed. Whether he is prosecuting more or less people, they are overwhelmingly and consistently black and brown and poor. He shifts blame for cash bail to the bond schedule when he has complete discretion in dismissing those misdemeanor charges that keep poor people incarcerated.
Finally, he mischaracterizes the role of defense counsel in delaying violent crime trials. The DA not only has the advantage of the “bully pulpit” in court, he controls the calendar. To say delay is the fault of defense counsel is to purposefully ignore the realities of the criminal justice system and the powerful influence of the prosecutor.