Press "Enter" to skip to content

Posts tagged as “Criminal justice reform”

A ‘Year of Jubilee’: Durham drivers are getting a second chance

Adam Merritt caught a ride home from work and pulled up to find his house full of cops. Someone had tried to break into the house and shot Merritt’s roommate. 

The police told Merritt that his roommate had just left in an ambulance. Merritt wanted to meet him at the hospital, but he couldn’t. His ride already left and his license was suspended. 

“They wouldn’t let me in my house, and I didn’t have money for an Uber. I was just cold standing outside with nowhere to go,” Merritt said.

Over a year later, his roommate has made a full recovery. But Merritt still looks back on how frustrating it was to be stuck in front of his house that day. “That was probably the peak point of how not having a license was just awful,” he said.

Merritt’s license was suspended because he never paid a speeding ticket from 2014. He was 19 years old at the time and he got two tickets in the span of a couple months. After going to court once, he thought he had resolved both charges. Three years later, he was pulled over for driving without a seatbelt and found out that he still had an outstanding charge.

According to the Department of Motor Vehicles, roughly one in five adults in Durham County had a suspended or revoked driver’s license in 2018. Almost 80 percent were people of color. 

Now Merritt is one of nearly 40,000 people eligible to get their licenses back. The Durham Expunction and Restoration Program was launched a year ago by the city’s Innovation Team, which collaborates with academia, community organizations, and the private sector to research and address social issues in Durham. The “R” of DEAR — license restoration — began under former District Attorney Roger Echols and continued after Satana Deberry unseated him in the 2018 election. 

Each charge or conviction revisited must be at least two years old and cannot include high-risk traffic charges, such as DWI or speeding in a school zone. The average case is more than 16 years old. 

“I feel like we owe Roger Echols a lot for initiating this, but DA Deberry has been an amazing champion,” said Ryan Smith, project manager of the Durham Innovation Team. “If anything, DA Deberry has leaned more into it.”

Deberry explained that not having a license in a place like Durham is a big deal, especially because the city lacks a reliable public transportation system. “If you can’t drive, you can’t go to work, you can’t take your kids to school,” she said.

After a Durham driver gets a traffic ticket, they receive a court date where they have the opportunity to dispute or ask to reduce their charge. But the fee for appearing in traffic court — not including the traffic fine itself — is up to $188. 

“What happens when poor people get tickets they cannot pay? You either don’t show up because you can’t afford it, or you show up and you get hit with the fines and fees and you don’t pay it,” Deberry said. Either option would result in a suspended license.

Since the program started last December, Deberry has been celebrating what she calls the “Year of Jubilee,” meaning a time of forgiveness. In a speech she gave at Duke Law School, she said that DEAR is the most successful initiative that she has ever been a part of. 

With the help of a local nonprofit called Code the Dream, DEAR created a website to let people know whether they have benefitted from the mass relief program. Anyone can type in their name and birthday to see if their traffic charges have been dropped or their fines and fees have been forgiven. 

A flyer for the driver’s license restoration program hangs outside of the DEAR office in the Durham courthouse. Photo by Erin Williams | The 9th Street Journal

Smith, project manager of the Durham Innovation Team, said that his ultimate goal is to expand the program to other counties, especially because people often rack up traffic violations in multiple jurisdictions. 

The program is viewed as a  success not just within North Carolina but throughout the country. The NC Bar Foundation awarded DEAR the Pro Bono Project of the Year in 2019. What Works Cities — a Bloomberg Philanthropies initiative — also announced in November that it will partner with the Durham Innovation Team to help other cities develop similar programs and reform efforts.

But despite the accolades, DEAR doesn’t have data on how many people actually have gotten their licenses back. 

According to Deberry, almost no one shows up to the mass relief hearings. People only know they have had their suspensions lifted through visiting the website or the DEAR office. But Smith said only 1,600 people have searched and found their names on the website so far.

Deberry attributed the disconnect to a publicity issue. “If I don’t read the Herald Sun, the News and Observer, or the Independent, if that’s not the kind of stuff that shows up in my social media feed, how would I know?” she asked.

Merritt also didn’t know that his costs had been dropped. He had no idea the license restoration program even existed until he was directed to the DEAR office by the judge in his most recent traffic court hearing. 

Merritt’s drivers license suspension was lifted Oct. 24. “[DEAR] helped me a lot… I just had a baby a couple months ago, and they probably saved me around $800, almost $900,” he said. 

But Merritt still has yet to get his license back.

“The DMV is another beast,” said Laura Holland, a DEAR attorney. There is a $65 license restoration fee and another $50 fee if the driver did not mail in their physical license before it was suspended. She said that oftentimes she will help people get all the way to the finish line, and then they’ll say, “Well, I can’t afford to pay that $115.” 

Smith calls this the last mile problem.

Another barrier is that the DMV updates its records manually, so there is often a significant delay between when the suspension is dropped and when someone can pay to reclaim their license. “They tell me 48 hours, and I’m like, that’s malarkey. Complete malarkey,” Holland said. “We think it is more like eight months, to be honest with you.”

Merritt went to the DMV last week because he has an interview coming up for a job that requires him to have a license. He said he wants to get a better job so he can support his newborn son. But after waiting in line for several hours, prepared to pay the final fee, they told him his name was not in the system and he would have to come back another time. 

While the DEAR program has helped lift thousands of Durham residents’ license suspensions, the city can’t track the number of people who have successfully gotten their licenses back. According to Holland, they plan to request that data from the DMV at the end of the year.

“Those same people who we know couldn’t pay the fines and fees also can’t pay $115 to get their license back, or any of the myriad other administrative hoops that the DMV has created,” Deberry said. “But we wouldn’t have known that if we hadn’t done this. This was a start, and now we’ve got to figure out the next step.”

In photo at top, DEAR attorney Laura Holland works on driver’s license restoration cases. Photo by Erin Williams | The 9th Street Journal

Police make three arrests after testing old sexual assault kits

In 2017, Michael Brooks Jr. was arrested for kidnapping, assaulting, and raping an elderly woman. Now, after testing evidence from a sexual assault kit that went untested for three years, police say they believe Brooks committed another rape a year earlier.

Brooks, 45, is one of three men Durham police suspect of committing multiple rapes after evidence in old sexual assault kits revealed DNA matches in separate crimes.

After discovering a backlog of over 1,700 untested sexual assault kits in 2018, the Durham Police Department has begun to pull those kits off the shelves and test their contents. Now, just over one year into the process, police have made their first three arrests connected to the testing of old kits.

***

In March 2018, the North Carolina State Crime Lab announced that law enforcement agencies had 15,160 untested sexual assault kits across the state. That discovery prompted movement in the capital and among individual law enforcement agencies. After decades of stasis, police and sheriffs’ offices began sending in their untested sexual assault kits.

So far, North Carolina law enforcement offices have submitted over 8,000 kits to the State Crime Lab for testing. Cities from Winston-Salem to Charlotte have reopened cold-case sexual assaults and charged suspects.

The Durham Police Department — the jurisdiction with the largest backlog in the state in 2018 — is joining those cities by charging three suspects identified through the testing of old kits.

Brooks was served an arrest warrant for a 2016 rape while in jail, where he waits to stand trial for rape and assault charges from 2017. Police also arrested Isiah Anthony Townes Jr., 22, and indicted Ronnie Porter, 45, for rapes committed in 2016 and 2014, respectively. 

“We’ve had some good success stories,” said Lieutenant Stephen Vaughan, assistant commander of the Criminal Investigations Division. “We’re looking at sending every kit we can.”

Vaughan estimates that the Durham police have sent in around 400 kits for testing so far. But the process is complicated by the different statuses of kits in the police inventory. 192 of Durham’s 1,711 kits are related to cases that have already been resolved in court, and 166 are marked as “unfounded.”

Kits marked as “unfounded” means that the officers who originally investigated the case believed that no crime occurred. But Vaughan and his team are still reviewing those cases to make sure the original designation was correct. “If there are any questions, we’re going to reopen that case and send the kit as well,” he said.

Police are even looking through cases that have already been resolved in court. In some cases, defendants who faced multiple charges accepted a plea deal that did not involve any sexual assault charges. Now, they could be held accountable for those crimes, too. 

***

Sending kits for testing at the State Crime Lab is just the beginning of the process for clearing the backlog at the Durham Police Department.

Take Brooks’ case. The State Crime Lab checked DNA evidence from the sexual assault kit with a federal database that contains DNA profiles from convicted offenders across the country. That’s when they found a match: the unknown DNA profile from the kit matched Brooks. 

After that, the Durham Police Department reopened the cold case and got to work. But they haven’t been working alone.

Durham’s Sexual Assault Response Team also includes the Durham Crisis Response Center, the District Attorney’s Special Victims Unit, and the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner program at Duke Hospital. 

“When the Police Department started getting to the point where information from the Crime Lab was coming back, they realized they needed to have a plan for how to contact the victims,” said Charlene Reiss, coordinator of the Sexual Assault Response Team at the Durham Crisis Response Center. Her team helps police form relationships with victims who may experience trauma from reliving a sexual assault.

“We sit in a room and go through these cases as a group,” Reiss explained. “We really try to figure out how to keep the victim’s needs at the forefront as the Police Department figures out how to move forward.”

***

The Police Department still has hundreds of kits to prepare for testing, including some that date back over thirty years. But the Sexual Assault Response Team is determined to clear the backlog.

“These are the cases that most need to be prosecuted,” said Kendra Montgomery-Blinn, lead prosecutor in the Special Victims Unit. “We’re getting CODIS hits on serial rapists.”

Even so, she knows that the process is only just beginning. “I think the goal for this is roughly six years,” she said. “And that’s only to test them all. If the last cold case kit gets tested 5 years from now, it’ll be 7 years from now before it goes to trial.”

Brooks’ case will also likely take years to reach its conclusion. This week, the District Attorney’s office will meet with Brooks’ victims to attempt to work out a plea deal for both the 2016 and 2017 rape cases. Brooks is currently in jail on a $1,750,000 bond. His lawyer estimates that both cases will come to trial in the summer of 2020.

Durham accepts $1 million to clear sexual assault kit backlog

On Nov. 4, the Durham Police Department secured $1 million from the federal government to help clear the city’s sexual assault kit backlog.

In a unanimous vote, the City Council approved the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative grant. Since 2015, SAKI grants have been used to fund overburdened crime labs, test over 47,000 sexual assault kits across 35 states, and even help catch one of the deadliest serial killers in U.S. history.

Now, the Durham Police Department will use the grant to tackle its backlog of 1,711 sexual assault kits — the most of any jurisdiction across North Carolina.

***

In 2017, the North Carolina State Crime Lab began counting all untested sexual assault kits across the state, joining 36 other states that had audited their inventories. It discovered the largest backlog of any state in the country: 15,160 untested kits.

Nowhere in North Carolina was the problem larger than in Durham, where police found 1,711 kits from assaults dating back as far as 1988.

“It came as a shock that Durham had so many,” said Charlene Reiss, the Sexual Assault Response Team coordinator at the Durham Crisis Response Center.

The State Crime Lab noted that some of those untested kits may have been resolved in court or marked as “unfounded,” which means that police believed a crime didn’t occur. The rest of the kits — those that were never given a reason for remaining on the shelf — are marked as “other”.

Not only did Durham police find the largest backlog of untested kits, but they also harbored one of the largest portions of “other” kits — those that remained untested for no given reason.

Why, especially in a city as progressive as Durham, did sexual assault kits pile up?

Some factors were outside their control, police wrote in the 2018 SAKI grant application. The State Crime Lab changed their policies about which sexual assault kits were eligible to be tested, causing confusion among officers. And some of the kits in Durham police’s possession were connected to cases already resolved in court.

But police also found that some investigators didn’t know a sexual assault kit could be submitted. Other officers “overlooked sending it,” according to the grant application.

Those familiar with the backlog hesitate to blame police. “There are definitely things that fell through the cracks,” Reiss said. “But for many years, the State Crime Lab was so backed up that it took years to get results back.”

That’s when the State Crime Lab asked police jurisdictions to stop sending consent cases, or cases where both parties admit that sex did occur, according to Reiss.

“Testing that kit wouldn’t help in that particular case,” Reiss said. “In those situations, it doesn’t come down to proving whether or not sex happened; it comes down to proving consent. So a lot of things on the shelf in Durham were consent cases, and they were told not to send those.”

Now, as part of the effort to clear North Carolina’s backlog, the lab is asking police to send all their untested kits. Durham, with the support of its SAKI grant, is beginning to do that.

***

Durham police, prosecutors, and victim advocates agree that to tackle a backlog this large, they need help.

“Our office is already understaffed,” said Kendra Montgomery-Blinn, an Assistant District Attorney. “Right now, the older cases that are coming through — we’re just adding them on top of our duties. It’s too much.”

Each sexual assault kit costs about $700 to test, according to the North Carolina Attorney General’s office. With Durham’s 1,711 kits, that puts the cost of testing the backlog at nearly $1.2 million.

But that estimate doesn’t include the cost of the investigative work that often happens after testing.

“With such a large backlog … the DPD does not have the resources to investigate these backlogged cases and also focus on current cases,” the SAKI grant application says.

That’s why Durham police are using the grant to create a new investigative team: the Cold Case Unit.

The Cold Case Unit will have two full-time investigators dedicated to reopening sexual assault cases and a bilingual witness assistant to support victims through the justice system.

SAKI grant money is also going to the Durham Crisis Response Center, which will fund a new advocate to assist with calling victims. The District Attorney’s office will also hire a full-time prosecutor to bring cold case sexual assaults to trial.

District Attorney Satana Deberry is ready to reprioritize sexual assault in her office.

“Part of the reason that sexual assault is underreported is because people don’t feel comfortable coming to the justice system,” Deberry said. “It’s important for us to signal to the community that we take these things seriously.”

“We spend a lot of time talking about the violence in our community, but often we don’t talk about the violence against women and children,” she added.

The District Attorney’s office is now prosecuting three cold cases in which sexual assault kits were tested after years of sitting in the backlog. With the new hires from the SAKI grant, they expect more charges to come and a new energy behind the process.

“I think everybody in Durham was surprised when they did the inventory,” Reiss said. “But things have changed.”

Deberry agreed. “Now we’re cleaning up what this system may have let sit for a while.”

The spaces we occupy: Deberry urges Duke students to reflect on race and privilege

At a panel on public-private community partnerships, District Attorney Satana Deberry stood before a lecture hall of Duke students and introduced them to Durham — the real Durham.

“I’m going to take you on a little journey where we will talk about the challenge of our environment…where we live, and who gets to live here with us,” Deberry said.

The event was organized by Duke students from the Sanford School of Public Policy and the Nicholas School of the Environment. Its purpose was to bring together members of the community — public servants, activists, and academics — to discuss cross-sector methods for building a more equitable and sustainable Durham.

But rather than discussing the mechanics of public-private partnerships in her speech, Deberry decided to lay a foundation for the conversation by talking about race and privilege. She made it personal by encouraging Duke students — as Durham residents — to think deeply about the physical spaces they occupy in the community.

Deberry first described the Durham most Duke students know: An up-and-coming city filled with “renovated bungalows, walkable streets, and gleaming new apartments with those saltwater pools.” But she emphasized that those spaces are only for people who can afford an average rent of $1200 a month.

“You live in a space where a bank is willing to give you 700-times the loan that it once provided people who lived in that community just 10 years ago,” she said.

She explained that today’s downtown Durham has transformed drastically, not only in cost of living, but also demographically. When she went to Duke Law School in 1991, people viewed the city as rough and dangerous. In those days, she said, “if you came here to go to college at Duke, you were advised to never leave the confines of the university.”

But in the past decade, as rent prices skyrocketed and squeezed out minority residents, Duke students have been more willing to venture off campus. The Bull City has become a destination; people fly in from all over the world to watch films at Full Frame and hear music at DPAC.

“Now, you live in a physical space that sees you and the space you occupy as cool.” Deberry said. “It turns out that Durham was only a problem when black and brown bodies occupied those spaces.”

She paused for a moment to let that sink in.

Then, Deberry reminded her audience that even though she stood before them now as the district attorney, Durham’s image only changed when people who looked like her were driven out of downtown.

“I am one of those people. I’m black. I’m a woman,” she said. “Had I been sitting in a different space today, you may have understood me to be someone else. I’m not here to serve your food.”

As a black woman from the South, Deberry understands how seeing the word “negro” written on her birth certificate can impact the psyche. She understands what it was like to watch her childhood friends go through the criminal justice system and what it is like to be the great-grandchild of people born into slavery.

“What does it mean for someone who looks like me, with my history, to be D.A. in this community?” she asked. “What does it mean in a place where so many people who look like me are subjected to the vagaries of the criminal justice system?”

By sharing Durham’s history, Deberry helped her audience recognize the racial biases that underpin American institutions, especially criminal justice. Deberry saw that understanding as an essential precursor to any conversation about equity and sustainability.

“When I speak at Duke, I hope that some student hears it and uses it going forward,” Deberry said while reflecting on her speech. “I hope they hear me and recognize their privilege, especially in this community.”

A courthouse moment: ‘This is my freedom on the line’

On any given Wednesday in District Court, Judge Amanda Maris settles into her high-backed chair and begins to read names.

“Todd Burgess,” she calls out on this particular Wednesday, September 4. And then “Dinelle Allen.” And then others. When Judge Maris finishes her list, 12 people have shuffled to the front of the courtroom, facing her in a slipshod line. Most are young, black, and male.

One by one, Judge Maris calls out a name and begins reciting her script.

“You’ve been charged with…” she addresses each one, filling in the blank with “larceny” or “misdemeanor assault” or something similar.

“This is a serious offense,” the judge continues. “What would you like to do about a lawyer?”

“Court-appointed lawyer,” the first defendant mutters. “Court-appointed,” says the next. Eleven times, I hear “Court-appointed, your Honor.”

But when the last of the 12 stands alone in front of Judge Maris, she surprises everyone in the courtroom.

“I’ll represent myself, thank you,” the young woman says.

She is Davionna Mack, a slender 21-year-old with a pair of red streaks in her dark hair and chunky gold earrings hanging down to her neck.

Mack is charged with injury to real property, a first-degree misdemeanor. If she’s found guilty, she could spend up to four months in jail. 

But representing herself is risky. “Are you sure you want to do this?” Judge Maris asks after hearing Mack’s decision, raising her eyebrows at the young woman. “That could be a problem if the victim comes to court.”

Mack knows that, and she isn’t contesting her guilt. “This girl I know came over to my car in the middle of the night and busted out my windows,” she tells me after her appearance. “So I went to her house and busted hers.”

But Mack also knows how the criminal justice system works. If she accepts a court-appointed lawyer and is found guilty, she’ll have to pay back all the money spent on her defense. That’s on top of the $173 in “General Court of Justice” fees she already owes to the court, just by appearing in front of Judge Maris.

So Mack will represent herself. If all goes well, she says, the woman whose windows she broke won’t show up to court. Then, her case will likely be dismissed. But if the woman does show up? 

“I’d still rather represent and speak for myself than to have an attorney speak for me,” Mack says.

Back in the courtroom, Judge Maris questions Mack one more time. “You’re sure this is what you want to do?”

“I want to represent myself,” Mack repeats. Judge Maris shrugs and waves the young woman out of court, to await the date she’ll take to the well and represent herself.

“I’m nervous,” Mack admits. “I want to speak for myself. But, you know, this is my freedom on the line.”

Deberry says her reforms are starting to show results

Durham District Attorney Satana Deberry says many people mistakenly believe all crimes are the same, that if “somebody pees in your yard, they’ll come back and kill you the next day.”

The reality, though, is that “somebody who pees in your yard usually has housing issues, substance abuse issues, all these other things that are harder to deal with if you have a criminal record.”

In a wide-ranging interview with reporters and editors from The 9th Street Journal on Sunday, the new DA said her goal is to prioritize prosecutions of violent crime but show more restraint about prosecuting people for lesser crimes. She has implemented a policy that no longer seeks cash bail for most non-violent misdemeanors and low-level felonies. Her goal is to avoid penalizing people who cannot afford to pay. 

Satana Deberry at a lunch with editors and reporters from The 9th Street Journal. | Photo by Cameron Beach

Deberry says her reforms are beginning to show results. She says she has slashed average jail stays from 19 days four years ago to about five days in her first six months in office. She also has expanded programs to bring together victims and defendants to help them move forward. 

A former defense attorney and housing advocate, Deberry is part of a wave of progressive prosecutors hoping to address mass incarceration and racial disparities in the halls of justice. Deberry says it’s important to consider the consequences of giving people a criminal record. 

“A criminal record is a huge barrier for people,” she said. “We want to think about when we create criminal records for people why we do and then focus our resources on the most violent crimes that are happening in Durham.”

Her first six months have brought a lot of turnover: about half of her office has been replaced since she beat incumbent Roger Echols. She said she interviewed everyone in the office and gave them all the chance to talk to her. Some chose to leave. Others chose to stay, didn’t like her work and later left. 

After graduating from Duke Law School in 1994, Deberry became a criminal defense attorney. She hated prosecutors. Now, she’s one of them. 

“If a prosecutor told me the sky is blue, I would have to walk outside because I would think they lied,” Deberry said. 

Given her background and approach to systemic discrimination, she was skeptical when people pushed her to run for district attorney. She decided to run after doing research and concluding that it was possible to put more emphasis on prosecuting violent crime and helping victims. 

She says she’s reorganized the office to create more specialization among the prosecutors. Her office now has six teams, including a homicide and violent crime unit, so prosecutors are more fluent in the law and “intelligence” around their topic. Other teams include a drug and property crime unit, a traffic team and a special victims unit. 

One of the challenges Deberry’s reorganized office has faced was grappling with a homicide backlog of nearly 100 cases. In her first half-year in office, she closed 22 cases, 15 by getting guilty verdicts, according to a report from her office.  

But she said there was heartache from other cases that her office had to dismiss because of a lack of evidence. That was particularly hard on family members of people killed and it can undermine confidence in the office. 

Deberry said she also wants to continue to expand its restorative justice efforts that unite victims and defendants in hopes of healing. 

“Every defendant is a member of our community. Whether they go to prison or not, at some point they return to our community,” Deberry said. “So how do we repair this violation so people are able to move on with their lives even after they’ve been held accountable?”