Despite controversies and community concerns, the Buncombe County District Attorney’s office is required to navigate a careful path in seeking justice.
The 44 district attorneys across North Carolina hold an office established by the state Constitution. Each DA is elected by the public to serve a particular judicial district. Buncombe County’s 28th is a “unitary district,” responsible for the 253,000 residents of a single county; the 30th, to our west, covers seven counties with a population of about 160,000.
Serving a quarter of a million people, the Buncombe County District Attorney has a larger caseload than many other DAs. The police forces of six townships in Buncombe County, the sheriff’s department, and the private police of the airport, UNC Asheville, and the Biltmore Estate all fall under the 28th’s jurisdiction. The office is not responsible for federal law enforcement: the Blue Ridge Parkway Police and anything having to do with interstate commerce is under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Attorney for the state.
Current Buncombe County DA Todd Williams has been in office just over three years, since winning election on a platform that included promises of greater transparency, accessibility, and opportunities for other outcomes besides simply punishment and imprisonment. Some policy proposals have been implemented; others are still in the planning or developmental stage.
We asked Williams about those changes, including what he is doing to improve his office’s reputation in, and outreach to, minority communities; what alternatives have been developed to strengthen the rehabilitation aspect of the justice system; and what remains to be done.
Williams began his career on the opposite side of the courtroom from the district attorney, spending 15 years as a certified public defender. That work as a former capital defender colors his approach to law enforcement.
“A public defender is a public office funded by the state, but it’s completely separate from the District Attorney’s office,” Williams points out. His responsibility is to do the best possible job for his or her clients, many of whom are indigent, don’t have family resources, or can’t hire specialists to help their defense. In his case, having started his career in Juvenile Court, Williams focused on “getting the child on the right path toward success in life.” That’s why the concept of Restorative Justice is a big part of his approach as a DA.
What is Restorative Justice?
The concept of Restorative Justice is that convicted criminals can be restored to a full and beneficial role in the community by providing a holistic, integrated sense of justice and healing for victims, along with personal accountability from those who have offended. Most approaches to Restorative Justice incorporate diversionary options to keep first-time offenders out of jail or prison; require some form of restitution for victims; offer rehabilitation such as education programs, job training and placement, and help with personal issues (housing, medications, drug treatment, etc.).
There’s also the possibility of expunging records of criminal conviction (“expunction”).
“We had an expunction clinic in 2015 where we brought lawyers in from NC Legal Aid office in Raleigh,” Williams said. “We found them a place to stay, they brought their sleeping bags, and for a few days they ran a clinic at the library. Seventy-some people applied to have their records expunged.” Williams hoped to do a follow-up, but Legal Aid lost legislative funding in 2016.
A working group in Raleigh still hopes to liberalize and improve the state’s “pastiche of rules” governing expunction, though action from the current legislature is unlikely. However, Williams he has worked to broaden the range of opportunities for offenders.
Justice Resource Center
The Justice Resource Center on the top floor of the Buncombe County Courthouse (where the jail used to be) functions as a clearinghouse and navigator to help people needing rehabilitation, job training, and other services that reflect the former public defender’s efforts “to change this courthouse from a place just of punishment to a place of restoration and rehabilitation.”
Beginning in February 2017, Buncombe County has funded the JRC. Now under director Tiffany Iheanacho, it helps people navigate the maze of legality and learn about options available to them. The Center uses a model similar to that of the Family Justice Center, but with guidance for defendants rather than victims.
Iheanacho says, “We provide an array of services, including RHA Health Services’s Mental Health and Substance Abuse programming, which offers diversion and case-management services. We also do re-entry housing, education, transportation, and unemployment guidance and referrals. For someone who needs help with financial stability, we can also refer them to other nonprofits like OnTrack Financial.”
The program is voluntary and available to first-time offenders, those who are on probation, convicted of a lower-level crime, or pending adjudication. The case manager can connect someone in that situation to housing and job training opportunities, as well as help with “soft skills” such as trauma or substance abuse help, even guidance on how to cope with trauma.
Navigators can also help with enrollment at partner A-B Tech for GED, curriculum, certifications (CDL truck driving), CAN, manufacturing, and other education program options.
Pisgah Legal Services can help an offender work on expunction of his record, and JRC also partners with the county’s Health and Human Services staff to navigate food and nutrition, Medicaid, case management, and such other public benefits as family planning, medical and dental services, or communicable disease treatment.
A program called Sunrise Recovery uses a peer-to-peer support model for a Schedule 1 & 2 diversion program.
“We get the court calendar every week, you filter out certain charges, misdemeanor possession, etc. The DA looks into past criminal history and has to agree to dismiss charges if someone completes the service,” explained Iheanacho. Staff approaches eligible defendants during their first court appearance, asking if they would like to participate in the program—which can help get their cases dismissed. Such individuals are often eligible for a public attorney, which staff helps them line up.
“We’ve seen about 500 people for all the programs we offer since we opened last October. About 70 people have gone to A-B Tech to access educational services, 200 have accessed case management, and we’ve had about 100 adult misdemeanor cases and 30 or so participants in the felony drug program. The task is problem-solving. It’s avoiding saying ‘no’ to people, but instead saying ‘Here’s an alternative.’”
How do people get there?
Williams acknowledged, “To insure the success of the JRC upstairs, we have to overcome decades of bad feeling. And you know how it’s going to work: If we have some kind of diversion program set up in regard to misdemeanors, and it’s middle-class type of youth, their family will have a good lawyer, and the lawyer, or the family, will come up with a [drug] treatment plan already in place, a psych evaluation, and so forth. So when we offer the program, the answer will be yes.
“But for a young man from Hillcrest or Pisgah View, it’s a different story. A lot of folks, just getting here, paying for the bus, getting the court costs together, if they can barely afford that, then that person is not going to take advantage of it. A lot of times you’ll see somebody just say, ‘Let me pay my fine and get out of here.’
“This program is targeted at that person, but they have to voluntarily accept it. And we [the DA’s office] can’t do anything in the courthouse until the judge requires it. So it’s available as an option—to go from pleading Guilty or Not Guilty, to having the alternative of seeing what services are available to you. That way, there’s no more courtroom—they don’t even have to go back to court once a judge has approved their participation—they have no conviction on their record. They’re not even charged if they go into the juvenile misdemeanor program.”
The program is broader than typical “rehab,” incorporating a yoga program, physical activity, mindfulness training. And, Williams said, these youthful offenders are held accountable. “They have to do some community restitution through work, plus utilize the other resources offered. But then they can go to Judge Hill, talk to him, and once they complete all the obligations, they’re done. They don’t have to be booked, they don’t get their name in the system, maybe they don’t even get fingerprinted.”
The program is available for opioid and drug abuse, too. If a roofer has a bad fall, gets a prescription for pain meds, then gets addicted, suddenly he is facing a felony heroin charge. Now he can go through the Justice Resource Center and avoid engraving a felony on his record for the rest of his life.
Another improvement Williams mentions is ensuring that people in jail are ones who need to be there. Working with judges and the JRC, it’s possible to identify who should be released without bond, based on pertinent information on the person’s previous record: “whether there’s a stable residence, has he made his court appearances in the past.” If it’s clear that someone can be relied on to show up, bond can be reduced or eliminated.
Also, a new electronic filing system (on BuncombeDA.org) can be accessed within the jail itself, allowing a person whose charges are dismissed to be released immediately. In the past, a 30- to 40-page daily docket listed all those incarcerated; charges might be dismissed first thing in the morning, but a clerical team might still be going through those papers at 5 p.m., and the person would remain in jail for another day. Williams calls this eFiling “a Best Practice” in the criminal justice system.
But if the community is skeptical …
So what happens when someone feels he has been mistreated, abused, illegally arrested, or otherwise badly dealt with by law enforcement, but doesn’t trust the District Attorney to be fair or honest? What happens when the DA’s office is seen as just another branch of “the police”?
Williams acknowledges there can always be better outreach, but, he says, he has been out in the community spreading the word. He has participated in a Hood Talk, met with residents at Pisgah View Apartments, and has a regular Twitter feed and Facebook page to keep the community abreast of what actions the office is taking and what policies and programs are available.
Diversity in the DA office
We asked if Williams has taken other steps to increase diversity in his office, given that it has been perceived as an all-white place for many years.
“We have sixteen Assistant District Attorneys in our office,” he said, including “some who have been here thirty years, from a time when the office was entirely white.” And, in fact, there is still limited diversity within the office, other than among support staff. Williams points out—not with a tone of making excuses, but rather as an explanation—that the small number of black attorneys in the area limits “the reservoir of talent” available.
“Out of 800 attorneys in Buncombe County, only ten or twelve, I believe, are black,” he notes. “We have two Latinos on staff, two African American legal assistants, one office staff member who’s black … and our newest assistant DA is Ray Escobar, who—from his name—I believe he’s Hispanic.”
As for black attorneys, Williams is eager to introduce Jorge Redmon, “who will be the first African American Assistant District Attorney, as soon as he is licensed by the NC Bar, under my tenure as Buncombe DA.”
Correction: In this article we inadvertently misquoted District Attorney Todd Williams in his statement about Jorge Redmon joining his office as an Assistant District Attorney. Williams said that Redmon, whose NC licensure is pending, “will be the first African American District Attorney under my tenure as Buncombe DA.” The DA’s office has previously employed several black ADAs, though not for a number of years.
Redmon, the son of the late George Redmon and Wanda Jones, graduated from T.C. Robertson High School in 1996 and from Chapel Hill four years later. He earned his law degree in 2010 from John Marshall Law School and has practiced in Georgia since passing the bar exam there. The two states have reciprocity for the bar after a period of practice, so his qualification will be transferred to North Carolina, but the process will take several more months. Both he and Williams hope he will have his NC bar approval in August.
Redmon practiced for five years in Georgia in real estate law before turning to public service.
“I’m a people person, so I didn’t want to be stuck in front of a computer doing title searches and property deeds. So I interned in municipal court in Cobb County, in the juvenile court, for about three months, and then went to Paulding County as a juvenile prosecutor, prosecuting defendants up to [age] 17,” Redmon explained. After a year, he returned to Asheville with his wife and three children, as his mother was facing health problems and “it was time to come home.”
“Having a diverse staff is important,” said Williams. “I wish I had a senior level felony prosecutor for serious cases who was a minority. It could help in building community trust.”
That need brings even greater importance to the appointment of Redmon and the development of a pathway for newly graduated young lawyers, especially from historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and law schools. Rebuilding trust with Asheville’s minority community is essential, especially in light of cases like that of Johnnie Jermaine Rush.
Transparency and accountability
Williams notes that the rules of court keep him from discussing ongoing cases, including the Hickman-Rush situation involving the APD. But, he says, “By and large law enforcement doesn’t want to be prosecuted, but they do want bad cops to be held accountable. And the DA will hold them accountable if there’s a violation of criminal law.”
He explains the difference between what his office can do—and it has now brought charges against Hickman—and what it cannot. Earlier in the course of that case, first in September, then in December and finally in February, the actions he could take were constrained by the information (both provided and withheld) that came to him from the APD, and that provided by Rush, who filed a complaint the day after his arrest. He dropped the charges against Rush early in the investigation, and filed charges against Hickman when additional information was finally disclosed. But he could not, as DA, fire or demote Hickman. “If it’s a violation of APD policy, not law, that’s not for the DA” to act on, he explained.
Thus decisions about repercussions for an officer like Hickman are up to the police chief … unless and until there is evidence that laws have been broken. In the Hickman case, the APD did not disclose that on Aug. 25 they took Hickman’s badge and gun, but did not refer the case to the SBI.
“If you have enough evidence to do those things, it should not take three weeks to refer it to this office for review,” says Williams. “And then to discover, three months later in December, to ask this office, ‘Do we have a case?’ That is justice delayed, not denied, and it’s not too late to have some accountability.”
Accountability and transparency are two of the watchwords Todd Williams campaigned on four years ago, and as always, it will be up to voters to determine to what extent he has, or has not, accomplished those goals.