For some 25 years, James Williams and James Woodall have dueled from opposing sides of courtrooms in Orange and Chatham counties.
As chief public defender, Williams represents poor people accused of crimes in Judicial District 15B. Woodall, the district attorney, prosecutes them.
But today the two are linked in common cause to reduce the number of African-Americans funneled through the courts into the state’s prisons. They agree the incarceration rate of young black men especially is unacceptably high and are working to do something about it.
“I think we both recognize the need for getting a better understanding as to how race plays out in the criminal justice system and seeing if there are ways to alleviate the situation,” Williams told me.
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After I wrote about the issue in this newspaper, Woodall and Williams both suggested I hadn’t gone far enough. As I reported then, the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world (698 per 100,000 population), and North Carolina imprisons blacks at a hugely disproportionate rate. (915 per 100,000). Williams and Woodall agree that much of the problem is a failed War on Drugs program.
The two attorneys serve on the N.C. Commission on Racial and Ethnic Disparity. They also co-chair an Orange-Chatham Bar committee studying reforms for the local courts. Between them, they advance a range of remedies, although they don’t necessarily agree on each. Let’s run through some:
▪ Habitual felons. By law, repeat offenders receive longer sentences than people charged with the same crime for the first time. Williams once found 70 percent of the habitual felons in prison from Orange County were African-American, many for drug or other non-violent offenses.
▪ Pre-trial release. Both are interested in ways to keep people out of jail before they are tried. Williams would end the practice of “money bail,” often resulting in poor people in jail even though presumed innocent. Meantime, they may have lost jobs, housing and child custody. “You have people in the Orange County jail who are there because they are poor, not because they are a risk to society,” he said. “And most of those are people of color.”
▪ Diversion. Orange County courts already have alternative systems for the mentally ill, homeless people and truancy. Woodall’s office is planning a pre-charge diversion program that would channel first-time offenders into alternate programs before being charged. North Carolina is one of only two states that try 16-year-olds as adults – a practice he opposes – and the pre-charge program would be aimed at 16- and 17-year olds.
Woodall also has started a “Pre-sentence Investigation” program in Chatham courts, soon to be expanded to Orange, that provides alternative penalties such as probation if the accused admits guilt and undergoes an assessment of his or her needs and risk to society. “I think that’s OK,” he said. “Get them out of the criminal justice system, have them be productive members of society.”
There are other factors to be addressed. The courts task force led by Woodall and Williams will study why minorities are under-represented in jury pools in the local courts and how to rectify that.
African-Americans also are under-represented in their own offices. Williams has one black lawyer among eight public defenders; one of nine assistant district attorneys is black. Both said they’d like to have more.
Woodall says he has seen a dramatic change in the expectations of the criminal justice system. “It used to be we were told to be color blind. Now we’re being told, absolutely not,” he said. “ There’s a belief now that that as a prosecutor … you should take into account that this may be a young African-American man and that therefore he should be treated a little bit differently in the system than a similarly situated Caucasian man of the same age, because the African-American young man has different issues in his life.”
That is an enlightened view – one that it’s hard to imagine embraced by a electorate that looks to a Donald Trump for leadership. District attorneys have to be elected too, and Woodall acknowledges that he’s fortunate to be serving Orange County, more open to reform ideas. That’s not the case for district attorneys, or judges, statewide.
Williams said the criminal justice reform movement needs to be aware of that and craft recommendations that make it safe politically for prosecutors and judges to advance policies that secure basic rights without endangering public safety. That requires educating the public to the costs of a criminal justice system that hands out unequal justice to its minority citizens, he said.
“Part of the difficulty is that there are so many people who have given up hope because of these criminal justice barriers, and I’m not just talking about people who are in prison,” he said.
“I’m talking about people who have criminal convictions, people who can’t find jobs, who can’t find homes, who can’t take care of their children. … At some point you wear down the human spirit. When that happens, when people get desperate, when people feel hopeless, none of us are made safer. In fact we’re made less safe.”
Ted Vaden is a former editor and publisher of The Chapel Hill News. Tell us what you think at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your name and town or township for publication.