'We're focused on violence': Durham's DA releases annual report amid sharp rise in murders

DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- It's been three years since Satana Deberry took the reins as Durham's district attorney; part of a wave of progressive prosecutors across the country elected as criminal justice reformers. But, here in Durham and many other places, these past two years have seen a surge in homicides. And weary residents are looking for answers.

"Unfortunately, the prosecutor's office doesn't get involved until bad things have happened," Deberry said to ABC11 in a one-on-one interview Wednesday evening.

The biggest goals of a DA's office are facing stiff headwinds of a national uptick in gun violence. Violent crime is down overall in Durham. But homicides rose sharply in 2021, Up 32% year over year.

Deberry said her strategy remains unchanged: fewer criminal prosecutions of people with substance addiction or mental health struggles, instead homing in on the smaller group of people causing the most crime.

"Really be focused on the people who are causing the most damage and not really casting a wide net so that we're just grabbing up anybody," she said.

Earlier Wednesday, the district attorney's office released its 2021 Annual Report. It details what Deberry calls enhanced cooperation with law enforcement in the most serious cases and new services for crime victims -- including free parking at the courthouse for survivors and witnesses; and a free clothes closet for witnesses who don't have court-appropriate outfits.

But as the murder rate rises in Durham, and cities nationwide, so does discontent. Some of the same progressive prosecutors elected across the country as Deberry took office are now facing pushback at home.

"I am not worried about a backlash," Deberry said when asked about any potential backlash here. "I think the people of Durham County understand that we're focused on violence."

She explained her office's crime focus is primarily on assault, armed robbery and homicide. Less so on low-level marijuana or traffic infractions.

Deberry will take questions about her annual report next week. ABC11 asked what she might say to any residents losing patience with talk of progressive prosecution.

"I'll say what I always say, which is that it is a small number of people and we are very focused on that violent crime," she replied. "When somebody has committed a murder or shooting or armed robbery, they do go to prison. And there's nothing there's no difference around progressive prosecution with that."

ABC11's conversation with Deberry came the same day Durham's Gang Reduction Task Force released its initial finding that ties the city's gang problem to 12 Durham neighborhoods. All of it is fair game up for discussion next Wednesday night when the district attorney presents her annual report to the public. She will take questions submitted online.
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