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New Durham DA’s goal is transparency and accountability
Holds to promise to eliminate cash bail for low-level charges
Published Thursday, May 24, 2018
by Freda Freeman, Correspondent

DURHAM – Satana Deberry wants one word to be synonymous with her name when people think of her: Justice. Pure and simple.

And justice is what she will be consumed with when she takes over as Durham County’s next district attorney.

“We’ll spend the next six months looking at policies that we want to get going when we first get started, seeing what’s happening in other jurisdictions across the state and across the country, and just being ready to hit the ground running,” Deberry said.

Deberry won the vote for district attorney in the May 8 primary, unseating incumbent Roger Echols. Since there isn’t a Republican candidate, Deberry will be the only name on the ballot in the general election. She’s slated to be sworn into office in January.

“I’m excited about the win, and I’m ready to get to work,” she said. “My name will still be on the ballot in November. Folks still have to vote for me one more time.”

Deberry, a graduate of Princeton University and Duke law school, practiced criminal law for about eight years, but said she stopped because she was getting to her clients too late – after they were already ensnared in the criminal justice system. For the last 18 years, she has done policy and advocacy work to provide housing and human services for those in need. Now, she said she’s come full circle.

During her campaign, Deberry, a reform candidate, took a strong stance against money bail, vowed to hold police accountable, and pledged to work to end racial discriminatory practices within the criminal justice system.

Her platform gained her the support of the Color of Change PAC, the political action committee of the nation’s largest online racial justice organization. The PAC is taking a lot of the credit for Deberry’s win.

Rashad Robinson, PAC spokesperson, wrote in an email: “Satana Deberry’s victory is the direct result of Durham’s black residents showing up to the polls and sending a clear message about the changes they want for their criminal justice system: an end to money bail and racist policing practices, and additional funding for diversion programs that keep people out of jail.

“In the weeks leading up to the primary election, Color of Change PAC has been hosting volunteer activities in Durham that shared a common theme: Black joy. Color of Change PAC members in Durham have organized volunteer-led Black Joy brunches, early vote block parties, door-to-door canvasses, and peer-to-peer text-a-thons to educate voters on the importance of electing a district attorney committed to ending harmful money bail practices. And today, they showed up.

“Now the real work begins. Color of Change PAC will remain deeply engaged in ensuring that Satana Deberry holds true to her promises.”

Deberry credits the PAC with educating constituents and profiling the district attorney’s race. “We didn’t coordinate with them,” she said. “They took interest in our campaign and lifted up the issues in the campaign, and we’re certainly thankful for that.

“District attorney and sheriff’s races don’t tend to get a lot of press, and most people don’t know what the district attorney and sheriff do, and so a group like Color of Change is really helpful in doing public education around what’s at stake. They certainly played a large part in doing that.”

Once in office, Deberry’s first priority is to help people gain a clearer understanding of her office. “The first thing is to create an open and transparent office,” she said. “To have people know who their district attorney is, know who the assistant district attorneys are, know what the prosecutorial policy of that office is, and to understand what a fair and just district attorney’s office would look like.”

Deberry said one of the things she will work on over the next six months is an accountability structure for the prosecutor’s office. “We want to ask who are we prosecuting in our community, why are we prosecuting those people, and what are the outcomes of those things,” she said. “I think there are some models out there across the country – Philadelphia, Chicago, San Francisco, Corpus Christi – we can look at to see how we can create some accountability within the office and have a way for the community to say you said you were going to do this and have you or have you not.”

Deberry said she’s committed to addressing systemic racism. African-Americans make up 38 percent of the county’s population and 80 percent of the jail’s population, she said.

“The whole system is full of racial bias, whether that’s who gets stopped by the police, who gets arrested, who gets prosecuted, who gets charged, so I think we need to have a conversation about that here in Durham,” she said.

One way to address racial disparity, she continued, is to eliminate money bail and divert people from jail.

“We’ll be working within the system to eliminate cash bail on low-level felonies and misdemeanors, to really look at how prosecutions are done in Durham County, to look at the implicit bias and racial disparities around that, and really gather some data to see who we’re prosecuting and why we’re prosecuting them,” she said.

Also on Deberry’s agenda is to tackle the backlog of murder cases in Durham County. She said there are almost 100 open murder cases in which defendants haven’t been tried or entered a plea bargain.


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