PW exclusive: Durham’s new D.A. is breaking the mold

PW exclusive: Durham’s new D.A. is breaking the mold

In a one-on-one interview, Satana Deberry explains how she’s transforming the prosecutor’s office in NC’s 6th largest county 

When Satana Deberry was executive director of the North Carolina Housing Coalition, it was easy for her to see the ripple effects of interactions with the justice system.

A single arrest, a single plea, a single conviction for even a low level infraction could close doors to employment, housing and education, she said. That could lead to further arrests, perpetuating generational cycles of poverty.

So when she ran for District Attorney of Durham County last year, she said, it was to make serious change.

When she won, she set about doing just that.

She implemented a pretrial release policy that took money out of the equation as far as possible under North Carolina law, disfavoring pretrial detention altogether in most cases.

She stopped accepting court referral for school based incidents that didn’t include serious crimes and stopped the threat of criminal charges for parents whose children miss school.

She waived unpaid traffic fines and fees for 2,118 people who lost their licenses at least two years ago, removing a major impediment to restoring their ability to legally drive.

She increased the racial and gender diversity of her office, looking to better reflect the diversity of the county.

“I think we told people we won’t be able to accomplish everything right from the gate,” Deberry said in an interview with Policy Watch last week. “But one of the things I know about change is that you have to make big change in order for it to stick. Incremental change doesn’t work over time. We wanted the courthouse to feel the difference with this administration in office. And I think we’ve accomplished that.”

Last week, just over six months since she took her oath of office, Deberry released a progress report touting the results of her policy changes.

The report shows the average daily population of the Durham County Detention Facility dropping from 420 to 369 in six months and the average stay going from 19 days when measured four years ago to just over five days today.

It’s also led to increases in the number of cases involving serious crimes – including 22 homicides – her office has been able to clear in the last six months.

The report makes the results of the change tangible, Deberry said.

“It’s sometimes hard to see it from the sky because you’re right here on the ground doing it every day,” Deberry said. “So I think it was a real morale boost to realize that we’ve accomplished the things we said we were going to accomplish, that we kept them in front of us.”

“People have been working hard,” she said. “So I think they were happy to see it’s working. I think we knew it would work.”

Justice as something personal

The roots of Deberry’s run for office and the many changes that have followed her victory can be traced back to her childhood in Hamlet, a Richmond County town as small as it sounds.

Both her parents were teachers. Their emphasis on education led her to set her sights high – college at Princeton as an undergrad, law school at Duke. But after two years practicing law in Washington, DC she returned to Richmond County to work as a defense attorney. There, she saw people with whom she’d grown up caught up in drugs and processed through a criminal justice system that seemed to criminalize poverty at every turn.

What was the difference between their life paths and hers? The support of her family, their expectation she would get an education and strive for more, she said – but in some instances, she added, it was just luck. If those she was representing took a wrong turn, she observed, the system made punishment so certain and severe it could ruin the rest of their lives. Helping them if they fell? That seemed to be someone else’s job.

“I saw that when I was criminal defense attorney, by the time my clients got to me they were almost off the cliff,” Deberry said. “My job was just to push them back a little bit away from the cliff. But there were a  lot of systems that failed them and pushed them into the criminal justice system.”

“I saw it individually then,” Deberry said. “I see it much more systemically now. It’s one thing to have a case load as a defense attorney – you have a certain number of clients. But every criminal case in Durham County is in this office. So we really see the racial disparities, the economic disparities, how placement matters. The neighborhood you grow up in matters. Where you go to school matters. It’s really stark.”

Once you know how to see it, Deberry said, the courts are where you find the canaries in the coal mine of the larger society; the impacts of economic changes, of gentrification, of health epidemics are all on display in the courts system before they’re seen more widely.

Some sideline legal work on behalf of homeowners facing mortgage foreclosure led to working with Self Help Credit Union and later a job as executive director of the North Carolina Housing Coalition. There, she saw the lingering effects of even minor brushes with the criminal justice system for people who were simply trying to sleep indoors and eat.

Deberry came from a political family. Her grandmother was “part of the Jim Hunt machine,” she said, and would take her out placing signs in election season. But she decided at an early age she didn’t want to run for office. Instead, she wanted to be involved on the policy end, working on solutions for what she saw as major systemic issues.

“But some people from Durham came to me and encouraged me to run,” Deberry said. “They helped me see it was possible to do it the way we’re trying to do it here now. That’s how I ended up in the race. I don’t know that I would have told you two years ago that I was going to be running for District Attorney in 2018. I never would have said that.”

“What is the mission? What is the vision?”

Now in office, Deberry said she’s proud of what she and her staff have been able to accomplish in such a short time, But, she added, the six month report is an indication they’re headed in the right direction with a long way to go.

“I think this is a job you can do one of two ways,” Deberry said. “As District Attorney you can just do what comes to you, have your [Assistant District Attorneys] prosecute the cases as they come with no real vision or mission for your office. That way I don’t think is very challenging. It’s kind of the way it’s always been done. For some people being in the DA’s chair is a reward for having moved up those ranks.”

But there’s another way, Deberry said.

“The way I’m trying to do it is to look at, ‘What is the mission? What is the vision?’ Who is doing what – not just what we’re doing in court but who we are in court. Who shows up from the prosecutor’s office? What we look like. All of those things make it challenging.”

That her office better reflects the diversity of the community isn’t just cosmetically important, Deberry said – it’s an important part of the community feeling they’re represented in the process.

Two-thirds of the office’s 39 employees are women. About half are Black, 46 percent are white and 2 percent are Latinx.

Of the office’s 22 prosecutors, 36 percent are white men. Twenty-seven percent are Black women.

“The kind of work we’re trying to do where we look at each case as a human being – that takes work. It’s a lot easier to just look at the charge and not the person.”

That’s difficult on the best of days. Every assistant district attorney (ADA)  in the office would tell you they feel like their case load has increased, Deberry said, even though they don’t have more cases.

Her office has sought to combat this problem by breaking the staff into six teams: Homicide/Violent Crimes, Special Victims (including domestic violence), Traffic, Juvenile, Drugs/Property and Administration. Prosecutors can work together, learn from each other and lean on each other’s expertise when needed.

“We have to have everybody in the vision,” Deberry said. “It’s a lot harder to do the vision with each individual ADA. So the first thing I did was assemble a leadership team of people who were not only good lawyers, but knew my vision, knew what I was trying to do.”

Historically, most people who share her vision wouldn’t be attracted to working with the District Attorney’s office, Deberry said – they’d be much more likely to become public defenders or defense attorneys.

“But I think people are beginning to understand the real power in the justice system is in the prosecutor’s office,” Deberry said. “The prosecutor has the most discretion – even more than judges. So if they want to make change, it has to happen on this side.”

That, she said, leads to an interesting question in an office like hers. What will the metric for success be when it isn’t necessarily how many people a district attorney’s office can successfully prosecute; when it isn’t a question of sheer volume? It may be concentrating on more serious crimes while recognizing which prosecutions serve no greater purpose. It may be putting the power of the office toward helping racial minorities, women, children and the victims of domestic violence to a degree that’s never been seen.

Six months in, Deberry said, she and her team are on their way to figuring it out together.