Triad City Beat asks candidates for district court judge in Guilford County to address how they would handle racial disparities in the justice system.
Recent incidents such as the police-involved shooting of Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte and the abusive arrest of Dejuan Yourse in Greensboro, along with revelations about black men being disproportionately subjected to police stops and searches across the state, have thrust racial disparities in the justice system into the spotlight.
District court judges work on the front lines of the state judiciary, handling misdemeanor criminal charges; civil cases involving divorce, custody and child support, along with juvenile delinquency, neglect or abuse cases. Almost 90 percent of the cases heard in North Carolina state courts come before district court judges. Considering the number of people directly affected by their decisions, Triad City Beat is examining how candidates for district court judge in Guilford County are addressing concerns about racial disparities.
Twelve out of 14 district court judge seats in Guilford County are up for election this year, with five of those being contested. One candidate is putting disparities in the justice system at the center of his campaign, while others are addressing the issue to one degree or another. All 12 races, including the seven that are uncontested will be on the ballot for all Guilford County voters.
Mark Cummings, a Greensboro lawyer in private practice who is running for a seat left open with the impending retirement of Judge Jan Samet, has been drumming the theme at every opportunity, from candidate forums and his campaign website to face-to-face encounters with voters at local brewpubs.
“I believe that the disparity in the justice system is the civil rights issue of our time,” the candidate says on his website, pledging to “balance the scales.” Cummings’ platform goes beyond race, arguing that judges are obliged “to confront critical and complex issues of race and policing, sexual orientation and parenting, socio-economics, religious freedom and personal liberty.”
Cummings said the legal system disadvantages African Americans and poor people. He said district court judges hold a unique opportunity to weed out bias in the legal system because they act as finder of fact — a role typically held by juries in superior court.
“I get to choose who I believe,” he said. “Do I believe the officer’s account because he’s an officer or am I willing to dig deeper? The prevailing view is that the person who has the greatest interest in the case is the defendant. I challenge that. I think it’s 50-50 because there’s a financial incentive when you look at the federal money [available to police] for drug interdiction, when you look at the fact that many towns and municipalities fill budget gaps with money from fines, when you look at professional advancement; they, too, have a vested interest.”
Cummings said he would also address an imbalance against defendants by exercising his discretion as judge to reject plea offers.
“The judge cannot force a district attorney to withdraw a specific plea offer, cannot force the district attorney to dismiss a case,” Cummings said. “They can refuse to accept the plea offer and explain why hopefully in an attempt to persuade either side as to why they are not accepting the pleas to say, ‘This may be one you want to try a little harder on.’”
He also said he would set bond at an appropriate level so it does not become a form of pre-trial detention for defendants who are poor and indigent, and can’t afford a lawyer much less make bail.
North Carolina is one of only two states that automatically classifies 16- and 17-year-olds as adults for purposes of adjudication. As a result, these offenders are saddled with criminal records, and don’t necessarily receive education, treatment and other programs guaranteed under the juvenile system. Cummings said he supports raising the age of jurisdiction to 18.
Cummings’ opponent, Marc Tyrey, is also a lawyer in private practice, but has additional experience as a prosecutor in the Guilford County court system. Tyrey said he’s aware that a significant segment of the population believes the justice system is affected by racial disparities while not going so far as to say he shares that view.
“We all need to take a look at that and see what the causes are for that perception,” he said in an interview with TCB. “I think community members have that perception, and we need to take it seriously and do what we can to address that issue for everybody.”
Like all candidates interviewed for this story, Tyrey said he sees value in diversion programs in place in the Guilford County court system that are designed to prevent young people from being funneled into jail and prison, and to help people struggling with addiction or mental health challenges get help.
Bill Davis and Miranda Reynolds Reavis, who are vying for the seat currently held by Judge Jon Kreider, both currently work as public defenders. Kreider, who was appointed to fill a vacancy by Gov. Pat McCrory, was eliminated in the March 15 primary.
A 2015 study by UNC-Chapel Hill professor Frank R. Baumgartner found that black males are significantly more likely to be stopped and searched by police in Greensboro and other North Carolina cities despite being less likely to be found with contraband. Asked how she would address the issue of black males being disproportionately referred into the court system, Reavis instead emphasized diverting offenders away from the criminal justice system by addressing root causes.
“Someone who routinely comes in with drug issues, they need substance abuse treatment,” she said. “They do not need to be put in jail. I think that’s going to do a lot of good. I want to treat people holistically. If it’s mental health issues, if you can get people the treatment they need, that can keep them out of the criminal justice system.”
Reavis said she supports raising the age of jurisdiction to 18.
“If you’re 16, you’re still a child; your brain isn’t developed,” she said. “A child doesn’t act reasonably in most circumstances. I’m 100 percent for that.”
Davis said it’s important for judges examine their own biases and make sure they don’t infect their judgment on the bench, and also to be alert to evidence that defendants are being charged without probable cause.
He said he believes diversion programs are generally working well in the courts, adding that as a judge he would take a proactive stance. “There are some gaps that can occur,” he said. “Sometimes someone comes into court and they don’t have a lawyer representing them. There’s no one advocating for them to steer them towards a program. Having judges aware of those programs and say, ‘Hold up, can we look at this as an option if a defendant is about to plead guilty?’ Can we have a judge who says, ‘Can we steer them to a program so they don’t have a record to avoid a criminal penalty and even more so the stain of a criminal conviction?’”
Davis said he “strongly supports” a recommendation by a commission convened by state Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin to raise the age of jurisdiction from 16 to 18, with the exception of serious felonies and traffic offenses.
Angela Foster, who was first elected to the district court bench in 2008, is defending her seat against John Stone, an assistant district attorney who has earned the endorsement of the Greensboro Police Officers Association.
Foster said she also supports changing the law so that 16- and 17-year-old offenders are adjudicated as juveniles.
The candidate noted that judges in North Carolina are required to undergo training on biases. “They say, ‘We all have biases; let’s try to identify yours, so you can be acutely aware of them while you’re making a decision,’” Foster said. “I think it’s an excellent program. Let’s expand that beyond the judges so that defense attorneys and assistant district attorneys take it, too. It made me look deeper inside myself. I think about that at least on a daily basis.”
Stone did not attend two candidate forums hosted by the League of Women Voters of the Piedmont Triad, and could not be reached for comment for this story.
Randle Jones, a Stokesdale resident with extensive law-enforcement experience who was appointed to fill a vacancy by Gov. McCrory, is defending his seat against Tonia Cutchin, a public defender who lives in Greensboro.
If African Americans are being disproportionately referred into the criminal justice system because of disparities in police traffic stops and searches, Jones said the court’s role is to protect their rights. “While the court cannot have any control over who is stopped and when they’re stopped, we’re the great equalizer,” said Jones, whose legal experience ranges from serving as a commanding lieutenant in the Guilford County Sheriff’s Office to working as a public defender. “When an individual comes in we can address those charges and see whether the evidence is gathered legally, to see if the procedures used by law enforcement are constitutional.”
Jones declined to comment on whether he supports raising the age of jurisdiction, saying that he doesn’t think it’s appropriate for a sitting judge to do so. He added that having attended some of the special commission meetings, the public is “overwhelmingly in favor” of the proposal.
“If that happens, I think you’re going to see a drastic increase in the number of cases in the teen court and the juvenile court,” Jones said. “They provide counseling and things that are not available in the adult court. I think that’s going to have an effect on the jail population, especially for the younger adults who are going into jail.”
Whether criminal defendants who came before her were African American or not, Cutchin said it’s important that judges closely review the evidence. “There’s a burden of proof — probable cause” she said. “As a district court judge, you need to make sure you hold officers accountable.”
Cutchin said she supports raising the age of jurisdiction to 18.
David Sherrill, another McCrory appointee, is defending his seat against Lora Cubbage, who currently serves as an assistant attorney general in the state Department of Justice in Raleigh.
Sherrill said regardless of whether African Americans are disproportionately referred into the court system, a judge has the responsibility to treat all parties fairly.
“Neither side has an upper hand because he’s in a jumpsuit, old clothes or a blue uniform,” Sherrill said. “You have to look at what happened at the time and whether it’s proven. We know people can make mistakes. Police can make mistakes. We all know police have a tough job, and they have to make quick decisions. Sometimes right, sometimes wrong.”
Like other candidates, Cubbage emphasized that notwithstanding any potential racial disparities in how African Americans are charged, judges are obligated to treat each case on its own merits. “I think the obligation of a judge would be to look at each case on an individual basis,” she said. “If there is a way to adjudicate that case so there is not any active time or there is not any further injustice done, then I think that’s the obligation of the court to make sure that the injustice stops at the bench and doesn’t continue to be pushed.”
Cubbage said she “absolutely” supports raising the age of jurisdiction, but only for nonviolent crimes. Echoing Judge Foster’s comments, Cubbage said every person involved in the legal system from judges down to law enforcement officers could benefit from regular bias training.
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