Your District Attorney… On the Issues

District Attorney’s Office Record of Results

“As your district attorney over the past 4 years I have worked endlessly to build a solid foundation of trust to promote change and deliver results… Change does not come in isolation. Through the collective engagement of the community, police and sheriff’s departments, leadership and elected officials -we work together to “raise the bar “each day to transparency, integrity in protection of pursuing truth and preserving justice. Roger Echols, Durham County District Attorney

A record of results:

  • DA’s Office consistently dispose over 15,000 district Court cases per year at a rate over 115%
  • Under my leadership the DA’s office disposed over 13,000 district court motor vehicle cases per year at a rate over 115%
  • Over the past 3 years, Disposed of over 8,000 traffic infractions annually at a rate of over 107%
  • In 2015-2016 there were 2,926 Superior Court filings – 3,691 cases were disposed of at a rate of 126%

Role of the District Attorney – Office of the District Attorney

“I stand for justice…I speak with a powerful voice to serve and protect the rights of all of Durham County citizens.” Roger Echols, Durham County District Attorney

Let’s be clear, while the perception of the District Attorney’s role may be reflected by the public as judge, jail keeper and bondsman– the duty of the District Attorney as determined by law is to prosecute all criminal cases filed in District and Superior Courts, prepare the criminal trial docket and advise local law enforcement.


Where I Stand:

For nearly 4 years, it has been my pleasure and honor to be the people’s choice and to serve the citizens of Durham as District Attorney. In my role as DA, I administer the duties of the DA prescribed by law and where warranted reach to our partners in law enforcement, county, state officials and the voice of the community to have a platform for addressing significant issues beyond the core function of the DA’s Office. My focus is and will continue to be based on the founding principles of the DA’s responsibilities and building and maintaining a safe community, to hold those that do not follow the law accountable for their actions and to respect and assure the rights and needs of crime victims are handled fairly and without bias. With 21 assistant district attorneys along with administrative staff we work collectively and cohesively with one goal in mind to protect the citizens of Durham through the fair administration of justice.

Under my leadership as your District Attorney, much has been accomplished:

  • Grown the office to a staff of 40 employees.
  • Prioritized the prosecution of violent crimes, increasing the number of prosecutors who handle these cases, which include armed robberies, felony assaults, and homicides.
  • Designated prosecutors to focus exclusively on domestic violence and child abuse cases.
  • Applied for and received grant funding to hire more victim-witness legal assistants
  • Sought other alternatives, which do not compromise the rights of victims or the safety of the community.
  • Brought stability and respect to the Office of the District Attorney.
  • Aggressively worked and built partnerships with other agencies and citizens to better serve the interests of the entire Durham Community.
  • Promoted and utilize discretion to refrain from criminalizing or incarcerating people that are poor or under represented.

Facts:

  • The District Attorney (DA) is the elected public official who represents the state in the prosecution of all criminal matters
  • The DA supervises Assistant District Attorneys (ADA), victim witness legal Assistants (VWLA), investigators and other administrative employees

Preserving Justice -Pretrial Justice (2016 Report)

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Martin Luther King Jr.

I believe the victim and safety of the community are the highest priorities when prosecuting violent crime. However, in many circumstances, I believe discretion should be used to refrain from criminalizing or incarcerating people if there are other alternatives, which do not compromise the rights of victims or the safety of the community.  Roger Echols


Where I Stand:

Citing a lack of preventative detention procedures the NCCALJ Report recommended “ North Carolina must improve its approach to managing pretrial risk” And I agree that steps to explore options that utilize the power of data and analytics. Durham would benefit from a significant increase in funding for pretrial services and an assessment tool geared to safety to the public and releasing more defendants from jail under the supervision of pretrial services. I have advocated for a more substantial pretrial services as your District Attorney as well as:

  • Expanded use of citations to alleviate the need of those charged to be in any type of custody for offenses in which there should be no conditions of release other than to come to court
  • Use of unsecured bonds or written promises to appear in appropriate cases, which would be most misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies
  • Allowing all defendants seeking to be screened by pretrial services to be screened
  • Having a prosecutor screen cases thoroughly before a pretrial release decision
  • Review of low bonds regardless of the offense charged
  • Requiring Judges to be involved in the automatic bond review

Facts:

  • The first appearance before a District Court Judge, each defendant is represented by an assistant public defender and an assistant district attorney represents the State.
  • Durham County’s pretrial services screens all defendants charged with low level felonies and all misdemeanors with the intent to recommend release for all defendants who are not a risk to the safety of the community.

JUVENILE JUSTICE

When a kid commits a crime, the US justice system has a choice: prosecute to the full extent of the law, or take a step back and ask if saddling young people with criminal records is the right thing to do every time Adam Foss, a prosecutor with the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office in Boston, and in Durham, I say we must stand up to prevent the premature incarceration of our youth. Roger Echols.


Where I Stand:

As District Attorney I strongly advocated for a more pervasive version of the raise the age legislation than the law that actually passed in the conference of DA’s and at the legislature. This is just one measure that is an example that change and strong leadership can make a difference. Stronger voices, partnerships must rise up to keep our schools as successful educational environments, not dumping grounds for children that are suspended, truant or through other punitive disciplinary practices.  There is no doubt that as stated by the American Bar Association the harmful collateral consequences effect our youth far beyond the juvenile justice system. Most specifically as a DA, as a man…a black man I am devastated by the disproportionate level of African American youth in the juvenile system.

Facts:

  • There is ambiguity as to how the new law will impact youth who are already in the adult system when the law goes into effect – they may very well remain in the system
  • Youths 16- and 17-years old who have an adult criminal record prior to December 2019 may be sent to the adult system instead of the juvenile system for subsequent offenses because North Carolina has historically been known as a “once an adult, always an adult” state
  • In North Carolina, the minimum age of juvenile court jurisdiction is six; meaning that children as young as six years old can be prosecuted and labeled “delinquent,” including for offenses like disorderly conduct in school North Carolina has the lowest age of juvenile court jurisdiction among all states that specify a minimum age

Racial Discrimination and Bias

“There is no greater contributing factor than poverty to both crime and incarceration.” Roger Echols


Where I Stand:

Issues of racial discrimination and bias in the prosecution of criminal cases in North Carolina exist despite the significant advances in the field of equal protection.

Peter Edelman’s research captured in “Not a Crime to be Poor” is just one example that further demonstrates how the justice system penalizes poor people beyond jailing people for minor offenses, setting of exorbitant bail, seizure of driver’s licenses.

In Durham, I along with over half of my prosecutorial staff have received implicit bias training. I continue to require implicit bias training of prosecutors as opportunities become available and those of us who have received the training present to the staff that have not yet received implicit bias training.

Alternative dispositions to traditional prosecution can also lessen any negative impact of the criminal justice system. Therefore, my staff and I have been aggressive in entering deferred prosecution agreements, which result in a defendant escaping any conviction. Diversion programs, restoration of licenses and restorative justice programs also help lessen the impact of the criminal justice system. I created an Amnesty Day by partnering with the city of Durham with a goal of restoring the privilege to drive to as many people as practicable. Through Amnesty Day, over 450 people have been placed in a position to receive their Driver’s License without having to pay costs of court or any fines. Additionally, major bail reform must be accomplished through change in state law as well as decriminalizing state laws for many offenses such as soliciting alms (begging) and sleeping in a public park.

Facts:

MINOR OFFENSES

  • There are minor criminal offenses in North Carolina that appear to criminalize poverty

BAIL REFORM*

  • State law controls the cash bond system
  • The Senior Resident Superior Court Judge and the Chief District Court Judge establish a bond schedule
  • Judges and magistrates determine bond in each individual case
  • Judges and magistrates have the discretion to deviate from the bond schedule in each case
  • The bond schedule for class 2 and 3 misdemeanors is a written promise to appear or an unsecured bond
  • District Attorneys have no authority to set bond. In Durham County, every defendant who is not released on bond after a magistrate initially sets bond is brought before a District Court Judge to review the bond on the next business day

* UNC Defender Manual

SEIZING OF DRIVER’S LICENSES

  • Tens of thousands of Durham County residents’ privilege to drive is revoked

Confederate Statue

We were a nation conceived in liberty and in our constitution proclaimed to be a nation where “all men are created equal” – but slavery left an indelible imprint that changed our democracy.

Where I Stand:

Based on many factors including those above, I thought it was appropriate to prosecute individuals for misdemeanor offenses despite what my personal feelings might be about the presence of confederate monuments prominently displayed on governmental property.  Many of the defendants were offered deferred prosecution agreements and one defendant accepted.  As is their right, the other defendants requested trials.  The assigned prosecutor was very qualified and prepared for trial.  The prosecutor sought to admit every relevant piece of evidence that we deemed admissible at trial.  I respected but disagreed with many of the evidentiary rulings made by the Court during the 3 trials.  As the State, we had no right to appeal the judge’s rulings or the judge’s verdict.  Based on the judge’s rulings in the first 3 cases, the fact that the judge retained jurisdiction in the cases of the remaining 5 defendants and my analysis, as a lawyer with 20 years of prosecutorial experience, of the case I made the decision to dismiss the cases against the remaining defendants.


Whitley Carpenter, part of the Criminal Justice litigation team for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, which helped represent defendants in the case, issued the following statement after the charges were dropped:

“The statue that was torn down was a symbol of white supremacy that has no place in front of the public buildings that represent our community. We applaud the District Attorney for finally dropping the charges in this case. It’s time for us to recognize that these symbols of hate create division within our communities. We need to make monuments to the ill-conceived project of white supremacy a thing of the past.

Facts:

  • Last August a confederate monument in front of a historic courthouse was destroyed. Several individuals were charged in connection with the destruction of the confederate monument. In a press statement I told the public that a just resolution in those cases would include an analysis of the property damage, a balance of accountability for the actual destruction of property in violation of the law with the climate under which the actions were taken. I also said that justice require that I take into account the pain of the recent events in Charlottesville, Durham and the nation. I said, justice requires that I consider the fact that Durham citizens have no proper recourse for asking our local government to consider removing or relocating this monument.I dismissed the felony charges against all defendants charged in connection to the destruction of the confederate monument. In February of this year, the State called the misdemeanor cases of three individuals for trial. The judge dismissed the charges against two defendants and found one individual not guilty.
  • I dismissed the felony charges against all defendants charged in connection to the destruction of the confederate monument.  In February of this year, the State called the misdemeanor cases of three individuals for trial.  The judge dismissed the charges against two defendants and found one individual not guilty.  I dismissed the charges against the remaining 5 defendants because the evidence in those trials would have substantially mirrored the evidence presented in the first 3 trials.

 

Death Penalty

Justice is never advanced in the taking of human life. Coretta Scot King

Let’s be clear, while the perception of the District Attorney role may be reflected by the public as judge, jail keeper and bondsman– the duty of the District Attorney as determined by law is to prosecute all criminal cases filed in District and Superior Courts, prepare the criminal trial docket and advise local law enforcement.


Where I Stand:

I am not a proponent of the death penalty and would support abolishing the death penalty.  While the death penalty is allowable under current law, I firmly believe it should only be considered in the most egregious and heinous cases and only when the strength of the State’s case is at the utmost height.

  • I support and seek alternatives whenever possible—life in prison or options for lesser punishment that reduces the high cost of going to trial.
  • There were 3 death penalty cases pending when I took office and I removed the death penalty from consideration in all 3 cases.
  • I believe the North Carolina victim’s rights statutes requires me to consult with the family of the victim before making a decision to seek or not to seek the death penalty even though the law does not require me follow the victim’s family’s wishes.

Facts:

  • In North Carolina, the Death Penalty is allowable by statute
  • More than 1,000 persons have been sent to North Carolina’s death row since the state assumed responsibility for executing criminals in 1910
  • Of the 143 inmates on death row in NC none are from Durham County
  • It has been more than 10 years since anyone was executed in NC
  • There has not been a capital prosecution in Durham County since 1997
  • Throughout my term as district attorney in over 100 cases, I have filed notice for the death penalty only once
  • Section 15A-832(f) of the North Carolina General Statutes requires that the district attorney offer the victim the opportunity to consult with the prosecuting attorney to obtain the views of the victim about the disposition of the case, including the victim’s views about dismissal, plea negotiations, sentencing and any pretrial diversion programs

Issues Beyond the DA

There are a number of significant issues facing the judicial system that span beyond the authority and jurisdiction of the District Attorney’s office. In those issues on behalf of the citizens of Durham County, I have tried diligently and effectively to work with the County Sheriff, county, state and federal agencies and officials to address and seek solutions to issues of human rights, immigration, equity and equality.

Immigration

I am committed to working with law enforcement to protect rights of citizens and those who are not citizens. It is important that all people in our county are protected by our laws and have the opportunity to lend their talents to the benefit of our communities. As District Attorney, I have worked to insure that those who are not citizens do not face the harsh possibility of deportation for a violation of nonviolent offenses. Our office has also been very responsive to victims of crime who are not citizens by appropriately signing applications for U-Visas. We have also worked and advocated for the release of victims who were actually in ICE custody. It is very important that we continue to protect the human rights of all people.