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Posts tagged as “Criminal justice reform”

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?”