Satana Deberry says she probably won't prosecute people caught with a couple of joints in their pocket.
She doesn't want to put young people in adult detention centers — or any facility, if possible. And she supports letting people charged with some crimes — like prostitution, driving while license revoked and misdemeanor trespassing — out of jail by promising to come to court, instead of posting bail.
After winning the Democratic primary in May, Deberry is set to become Durham County's next district attorney in January. (There is no Republican on the ballot this fall.) The current head of the N.C. Housing Coalition, she will oversee 19 prosecutors in a county that's had four years of rising crime and ranks among the most violent in the state, according to state reports.
Deberry spent just four years, 1996-2000, of her 24-year law career focusing on criminal cases.
The election, she said, wasn't about that.
“This race is about a culture change here in Durham County,” Deberry said. “We deserve better.
"No matter who has been district attorney here in Durham over the last 50 years, we have the same criminal-justice outcomes we had 50 years ago," she continued. "It doesn’t matter what programs they have been running. It doesn’t matter that the police are arresting more people or fewer people. We still look like Mississippi.”
Deberry is one of a handful of successful candidates across the state promising criminal-justice reform in the wake of jailhouse deaths in Durham, fatal officer shootings in Durham and Charlotte and body camera-footage of video showing an officer beating and choking a man stopped for jaywalking in Asheville.
Unlike previous elections focused on law and order issues, these candidates have campaigned on human and civil rights issues: ending cooperation with federal immigration agents, protecting the rights of jail inmates and improving law enforcement's relationships with the community.
“Look at what is going on across America,” McFadden said. “Everything deals with law enforcement, officer-involved shootings and district-attorney decisions.”
In races where voters had a choice between old and a new ways of doing things they chose change, said Becki Gray, senior vice president with the nonpartisan John Locke Foundation.
Nationally and in North Carolina, urban areas are becoming more progressive, she said. That, coupled with high-profile incidents and a growing national conversation about fairness in the criminal justice system is pushing the pendulum in some communities, Gray said.
“I guess the question is has the pendulum swung too much, or has it swung not enough?” Gray said.
In Durham County, Deberry emphasized prioritizing violent crime, while using the DA’s Office to promote policies that fight bias such as cash-less bail for certain offenses. She beat one-term incumbent Roger Echols, who was implementing what legal experts called some of the most progressive programs in the state but who some critics said wasn't moving fast enough.
Durham County voters also chose Clarence Birkhead over one-term incumbent Mike Andrews in the Democratic primary for sheriff. Birkhead, a former police chief for Duke University and the town of Hillsborough said he would stop Durham County's practice of honoring federal immigration detainer requests at the county jail, and would deprioritize misdemeanor marijuana enforcement.
In Mecklenburg County, McFadden, a retired police detective, promised to end the federal immigration partnership known as 287(g) and improve jail conditions by opposing solitary confinement and returning in-person jail visits, which ended with a video visitation system installed in 2016. He has no Republican challenger this fall.
McFadden said he doesn’t want to be put in a progressive box because each candidate is unique. His campaign centered on specific needs in his communities, where he said he has been doing groundwork for 25 years. He travels across the U.S. speaking about law enforcement and communities coming together. He, along with a Charlotte barber created the Cops & Barbers, an initiative that promotes frank conversation and was highlighted by President Obama in 2015 as one of the actions that innovative cities are taking to address police and community relationships.
Since 2016, McFadden also has starred in his own reality TV show, “I Am Homicide,” on the cable channel Investigation Discovery.
Buncombe County pushed forward Quentin Miller, an Asheville police sergeant, who also promised not to participate in the 287(g) program. The incumbent sheriff didn’t run, but endorsed one of Miller’s four challengers. Miller will face a Republican in November.
In Asheville, Miller was the first African American to win the Democratic primary, and McFadden and Birkhead are set to become the first black sheriffs in their counties.
But not everyone is on board.
In Durham, Sheriff's Office Maj. Paul Martin announced after the primary election that he is mounting a write-in campaign for Durham County sheriff to fight the county’s political “descent into anarchy and criminality.”
“The radicals are consciously creating an atmosphere where hardened criminals are considered victims,” Martin said.
Some of the successful candidates had help from left-learning groups, including ones associated with billionaire George Soros.
In a first, the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina spent $175,000 in Mecklenburg County on ads aimed at educating voters on the sheriff candidates’ positions on immigrant rights, police accountability, and the rights of people in jail.
In Durham County, the California-based Color of Change political action committee spent more than $74,000 on Facebook and other advertising for Deberry, according to 2018 state campaign finance reports.
Color of Change, a racial justice organization, has received funding from Soros and his organizations, according to federal campaign and other reports. It also supported Democratic Pitt County District Attorney candidate Faris Dixon, who won the primary and will face a Republican in the fall.
In the spotlight
The attention on sheriffs has been fueled by a number factors that include President Donald Trump's “very vocal” support of former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, said Mirya Holman, a Tulane University political science professor who has been researching sheriffs since 2012.
Arpaio, the Maricopa County sheriff who lost his re-election bid in 2016 after 24 years, was found guilty of criminal contempt of a federal court order in 2017 that said he couldn't detain immigrants just because they were in the country illegally. Trump pardoned him the next month.
Holman found that 99 percent of the nation's sheriffs are male and 95 percent are white.
Eddie Caldwell, executive vice president and general counsel for the N.C. Sheriffs' Association, said he doesn't know how much reform issues are affecting sheriff races. “Just like with elections to Congress, elections to the legislature, the philosophy varies community by community,” he said.
The big issues across the states are safety in schools and opioid abuse, he said. Enforcement priorities vary by jurisdiction, he said.
When experts talk about reform in district attorney races, meanwhile, they often cite civil rights attorney Larry Krasner and his 2017 campaign for Philadelphia DA. Before being elected, Krasner represented members of Black Lives Matter, Occupy Philly and filed more than 75 civil lawsuits against police.
But others have come into office on reform platforms, including Chicago attorney Kim Fox in Cook County, Illinois, said UNC-Chapel Hill law professor Carissa Hessick.
Most district attorneys run unopposed in their elections, Hessick said. To have a challenger running on policy differences, instead of in response to high-profile cases, is unusual, she said. Regardless of who wins, those debates "can get voters starting to think about what are the best policies or the policies that they prefer,” she said.
Keep in mind, however, that even when candidates make promises, “we’ve sometimes seen problems with follow-through," including making sure their staff members honor them, Hessick said.
In the sheriff’s races, McFadden, Miller and Birkhead have put forth concrete actions that they clearly have the authority to take.
Some have questioned whether Deberry, who has cited Krasner’s model, can implement it in Durham. Early in the campaign, Deberry was caught not only borrowing some of Krasner policies but his exact wording on her website.
Since taking office, Krasner has fired about 10 percent of his staff, ended cash bail for 25 low-level offenses and dropped and refused to prosecute simple possession charges. He also has instructed his staff to seek shorter sentences for plea deals and include information on how much it will cost to incarcerate someone.
State Rep. Marcia Morey, a former Durham County district court judge, said district attorneys do have prosecutorial discretion, but they don't make the final call. .
For example, while Deberry plans to change her policy on what prosecutors suggest for bonds, it’s ultimately up to judges.
You can have seven district court judges with the same facts, and you can get different bonds for each case, Morey said.
A mother's fear
In campaign appearances, Deberry, a mother of three children, ages 11, 12 and 16, said she worries when her oldest drives alone.
She also fears being pulled over by an officer.
When Deberry’s mother was dying six years ago, she was driving to the hospital in Moore County when she got pulled over by police.
“My registration had expired, and they asked me to get out of the car, and I threw up,” she said. “I had a child who has not only witnessed my anxiety, but has developed her own anxiety based on what we have witnessed because of social media” and other conversation..
In the coming months, Deberry said she will be working on policies to fulfill her campaign promises, talking to prosectors acrross the country about changes they are making and continuing to attend campaign events since she will be on the ballot in November.
If Deberry keeps her promises, it would result in a real change in the culture, purpose and expectations of a prosecutor’s office, said Scott Holmes, an attorney and N.C. Central University law professor and supervising attorney of the school’s Civil Litigation Clinic.
One of the major changes, Holmes expects, is Deberry bringing a racial equity analysis to the prosecutors’ office, looking at how current practices “disproportionally impact poor people of color.”
“I think, in general, just bringing that lens to that office can be revolutionary in moving us away from the failed war on drugs and mass incarceration,” he said.