North Carolina District Attorney
Local and state prosecutors hold extraordinary power in the criminal justice system. How they exercise discretion at each stage of criminal proceedings—from initial charging decisions to the sentences they seek to impose—determines whether the local justice system is fair and just. They also wield significant influence as policymakers and civic leaders, and can work with legislators, judges, public defenders, law enforcement, and other community stakeholders to advance justice through policy reforms.
Prosecutors can and should use this power to end the scourge of mass incarceration in America. The United States has the largest prison population in the world, and 87 percent of those imprisoned are held in state or local prisons and jails. The United States’ over-reliance on incarceration and harsh punishment is both costly and ineffective; it exacts enormous financial, emotional, and social costs on communities across the country while exacerbating recidivism and leading to more crime.
This questionnaire evaluates whether local prosecutors are committed to addressing the key drivers of mass incarceration. The questions fall broadly into five different principles:
End Wealth-Based Disparities.
End the War on Drugs.
Eliminate Excessive Punishments.
Increase Transparency and Accountability.
Promote Policies that Aid Undocumented Communities.
Principle #1: End Wealth-Based Disparities
1. End the Use of Money Bail
The continued use of unjust money bail policies contributes to the overall incarceration of poor people and disproportionately harms people of color by keeping them incarcerated simply because they cannot afford to pay bail.
Will you issue public statements in support of statewide legislation, local ordinances, and/or litigation aimed at ending unjust money bail policies?
Will you advocate for individualized, adversarial bail hearings, at which the defendant is represented by counsel?
Will you presume, and affirmatively recommend, release for all defendants unless there is a clearly articulated substantial risk of harm to the community or high likelihood of flight?
Will you publicly support the expansion of cash-free pretrial bonds?
2. Make Diversion Programs Accessible to All
Pretrial diversion creates opportunities for people charged with an offense to get the support and education necessary for rehabilitation, and allows successful individuals to avoid the collateral consequences of a conviction, which can be detrimental to future employment, housing, and education. Pretrial diversion should be available to anyone eligible to participate in the program, irrespective of an individual’s ability to pay a fine or fee.
Will you eliminate all fees, court costs, and fines associated with pretrial diversion programs?
If fees cannot be eliminated for all defendants, will you create a robust fee waiver program?
Will you refuse to make admission to diversion programs contingent on an individual’s ability to pay restitution?
Will you ensure that costs and fees do not bar indigent defendants from participating in required diversion classes, including those provided by outside vendors?
3. Adopt Policies to Avoid the Criminalization of Poverty & End Debtors’ Prison
Local criminal justice systems disproportionately harm people living in poverty. Whether through the imposition of fines and fees as a condition to resolving cases, or through laws that effectively criminalize homelessness, local actors have imposed a poverty penalty on many people within our communities.
Will you publicly support legislation to outlaw driver’s license suspensions for non-payment of fines or fees?
Will you publicly advocate amnesty for fines and fees that result in driver’s license suspensions?
Will you dismiss charges when possible to allow individuals to reinstate their driver’s license?
Will you oppose incarceration based upon the failure to pay fines, fees, court costs, or restitution unless there is uncontroverted proof the individual is able but willfully refusing to pay?
Will you refuse to prosecute sit-sleep-lie laws, public urination violations, and other quality-of-life conduct that is a byproduct of an individual’s homelessness or poverty?
Principle #2: End the War on Drugs.
1. Keep People Out of Jail for Drug-Related Offenses
Years of experience with ineffective drug laws and the latest medical research on addiction suggest that treating drug use as a public health issue, as opposed to a criminal justice issue, is a more effective approach to reducing harm.
Will you refuse to charge any possession of marijuana, except in cases of trafficking?
If you will not refuse to charge possession of marijuana in all cases, will you refuse to charge defendants who possess under 1.5 oz. of marijuana?
If you will not refuse to charge possession of marijuana in all cases, will you ensure that all defendants who possess less than a trafficking weight (10 lbs.) have access to pretrial diversion to the extent permitted by state law and will not be charged as felons?
Where outright voluntary dismissal is not possible, will you create and expand cite-and-release and diversion programs for low-level drug offenses, including drug possession, possession of drug paraphernalia, and distribution of small amounts of drugs?
Will you refrain from charging defendants with possession with the intent to distribute a controlled substance based solely on drug quantity or packaging?
Will you refuse to seek incarceration sentences for defendants charged with simple possession?
Will you adopt a policy prohibiting the prosecution of individuals as habitual felons whenever one or more of the underlying charges is for simple possession of a controlled substance?
Will you publicly support legislation that reclassifies all drug possession offenses as misdemeanors?
2. Treat Opioid Addiction as a Public Health Problem
The opioid crisis claims tens of thousands of lives every year, and has shown few signs of abating. Prohibitionist policies did not win the war on drugs, and they will not end this crisis. Prosecutors can play an important role in ending the crisis, but only if they treat addiction as a public health crisis, rather than a criminal justice concern.
Will you adopt an office-wide policy stating that drug overdoses will not be prosecuted as homicides cases except when there is sufficient evidence of intent to cause death?
Will you publicly support the creation of supervised injection facilities?
Will you adopt an office-wide Good Samaritan policy stating that individuals who call the police in response to an overdose will not be prosecuted?
Principle #3: Eliminate Excessive Punishments.
1. Treat Kids Like Kids
Children’s brains continue developing until around the age of 25 and research supports their enhanced capacity for rehabilitation. As a result, children should not be prosecuted in adult court, nor should they be given punishments that preclude the opportunity for redemption.
Will you adopt an office-wide policy stating that your office will never seek a sentence of life without parole, or any practically equivalent sentence, for any person under the age of 18?
Will you refrain from using direct file or transfer to adult court for any child under the age of 16, and for children who are 16 or 17, refrain from transferring to adult court unless for a capital offense or required by law?
Will you publicly support a reverse transfer provision for juveniles in adult court?
With North Carolina’s raise-the-age law taking effect in December 2019, will you adopt policies and practices to immediately reduce the number of 16 and 17-year-olds charged in adult court, including through the expansion of diversion opportunities and charging decisions?
In the rare circumstances when a juvenile is sent to adult court, will you take into account their youthful status and unique circumstances as mitigating factors at each stage of the process, from charging decisions through final disposition?
Will you insist on pretrial release and adequate services for all juveniles so that none of them are sent to jail before trial?
Will you refuse to prosecute school suspension or expulsion cases where there is no use or threat of force resulting in serious physical harm?
Will you publicly advocate for increased services for incarcerated juveniles?
Will you publicly support changing any and all laws that require children to be prosecuted as adults, including through legislation that raises the age of adult criminal responsibility for all crimes to 18, or preferably 21?
Will you publicly support raising the minimum age of juvenile prosecution from 6-years-old?
Will you publicly advocate for developmentally-appropriate Miranda protections for all defendants under the age of 18?
2. Do Not Seek the Death Penalty
The use of the death penalty has become increasingly isolated to a handful of jurisdictions within the United States. There is mounting evidence that the death penalty is fraught with error, provides no additional public safety benefit over other available sentences, and is routinely used against individuals with diminished culpability, including persons with intellectual disabilities and severe mental illness, youthful offenders under the age of 21, and those who have experienced extreme childhood trauma.
Will you commit to never seeking the death penalty?
Will you publicly support repeal of the death penalty?
Will you examine previously-imposed death sentences within your county and seek negotiated resolutions for sentences less than death, particularly when there is substantial evidence that the death-sentenced individual suffers from an intellectual disability or serious mental illness, or was under the age of 21 at the time of the offense, or experienced childhood trauma?
3. Promote Proportionate Sentencing and Pathways to Second Chances
People are more than their worst acts, and even people who commit the most serious offenses often change their lives profoundly over time. To recognize the worth and potential for growth in all people, it is important for local prosecutors to provide individualized consideration to the character and background of each person and to the circumstances surrounding the commission of the offense. It also is critical for elected prosecutors to promote opportunities for release, through parole or clemency, and to help remove barriers to reentering society for those who are released from incarceration.
Will you establish an office-wide presumption that the least severe applicable charges apply, and that the lowest sentencing outcome is the correct recommendation?
Will you decline to prosecute people as habitual felons when the instant offense does not involve the threat or use of physical force against another person?
If not, will you decline to prosecute people as habitual felons when all of the prior offenses and the instant offense do not involve the threat or use of physical force against another person?
Will you require prosecutors to justify upward departures to their supervisors, and require that the chief assistant prosecutor approve all maximum sentences sought?
When prosecutors request terms of imprisonment, will you require them, using the “cost of corrections” published by the North Carolina Department of Public Safety, to state and justify the costs of each requested prison term on the record?
Will you establish an office policy against increasing or threatening to increase the number or severity of charges in order to secure more favorable plea dispositions or waivers of rights?
Will you publicly oppose any proposed legislation that would create new mandatory minimum sentences or lengthen existing minimum sentences, and support legislation aiming to eliminate such sentences?
Will you support second chances, even for those who commit serious offenses, by both limiting parole opposition to those cases in which there is a demonstrable and serious risk of future violence and committing to affirmatively advocate for parole on behalf of those who demonstrate growth and maturity during their incarceration?
4. Eliminate Unnecessary Punishments
Criminal punishments for certain crimes, including quality-of-life offenses, are by definition excessive. They saddle people who pose no public safety risk with criminal records, which become lifelong barriers to economic success.
Will you refuse to prosecute broken-windows offenses such as criminal trespass and public urination
Will you establish diversion programs for offenses that do not pose a public safety risk, such as low-level theft and criminal mischief?
Principle # 4: Promote Transparency and Accountability to the Community
1. Engage with the Community You Represent
Enhancing transparency and accountability within the district attorney’s office is critical to ending the win-at-any-cost pursuit of high conviction rates that fails communities and to ensuring community accountability. Providing the community with information about arrest rates, charging decisions, and sentencing policies will help build and maintain trust between the office and the community it serves.
Will you maintain and publish an electronic case management system to measure the overall effectiveness of the office—including the number of misdemeanor and felony cases filed each month, disposition statistics, pretrial incarceration rates and length of stay by offense category, and average bond for each class of offense—so that the community can determine the effectiveness of policies aimed at reform?
Will you track information concerning race at all steps of the prosecution process, and publicly report any significant racial disparities arising at any stage of the process?
Will you build a staff that reflects the diversity of the community the office serves?
Will you conduct open sessions with the community at least once every month, and create other public channels for community members and organizations to engage with the office?
2. Create an Independent Public Integrity Unit
The district attorney must be committed to rigorously and independently investigating and prosecuting police and other official misconduct. An independent Public Integrity Unit tasked with investigating and prosecuting alleged instances of public corruption, fraud, police shootings, excessive force, or other abuses of power will help avoid concerns about bias in cases involving police misconduct.
Will you develop clear procedures and staff responsibilities whenever an officer-involved shooting or use of excessive force occurs, including a robust investigatory protocol and an independent investigatory team that has no regular contact with the law enforcement agency in question?
Will you release dash-cam recordings and audio or video surveillance related to police-involved shootings or use of excessive force within 30 days of any incident?
Will you commit to a full investigation of any allegation involving police corruption, including presentation to the grand jury?
Will you provide defense counsel with a list of all officers under investigation?
3. Develop Policies that Ensure the Integrity of Convictions
Law enforcement officials and prosecutors will inevitably make mistakes. The consequences of wrongful convictions are manifold; the innocent person spends years in prison for a crime he did not commit, and justice continues to elude the victim’s family. Prosecutors must be vigorous in re-examining prior cases whenever there is credible evidence of innocence, and must develop policies that limit the possibility of future wrongful convictions.
Will you establish and fully staff a Conviction Integrity Unit that examines post-conviction cases to identify and correct wrongful prosecutions?
Will the CIU remain separate from the office’s appellate division?
Will you create a review process for all discretionary decisions, from charging through disposition, where senior staff examine whether there is sufficient evidence to support the charges and whether the decision is consistent with the office’s policy of seeking the least severe acceptable charges?
Will you create an office policy recognizing the flaws in informant testimony?
Will you develop clear guidelines regarding the use of informant testimony?
Will you prohibit staff from relying on discredited scientific techniques, such as bite mark analysis or hair strand matching?
Will you develop clear office guidelines regarding the use of forensic evidence and instill respect for scientific methodology, evidence, and analysis?
Will you install a complete open-file policy that provides defense counsel with access to all non-privileged information from the moment the charges are filed?
Will you conduct regular Brady training, require prosecutors to turn over all evidence that arguably falls within the Brady rule, and discipline prosecutors who fail to comply with their Brady obligations?
Principle #5: Promote Policies that Aid Undocumented Communities
In the last year, undocumented communities have come under increasing attack because of increasingly vicious federal immigration laws. These policies not only allow for deportation because of minor allegations like possession of drugs, but they also make communities less safe, as undocumented victims fear going to court or speaking to law enforcement.
Will you publicly support local ordinances and statewide legislation that affirmatively limits law enforcement’s cooperation with ICE, and oppose any effort to enlist local law enforcement as federal immigration agents?
Will you implement an office-wide policy requiring prosecutors to consider immigration consequences in the charging, plea, and sentencing decisions?
Will you expand pre-plea diversion programs that allow individuals to obtain dismissals of their charges without entering a guilty plea?
Will you affirmatively support post-conviction litigation from non-citizens who pled guilty without being advised of the potential immigration consequences of their plea?