Asheville Blade candidate questionnaire - 2018
Name: Todd Williams
Profession: Attorney, Board Certified Specialist in NC Criminal Law
In up to two words, describe your political affiliation: Progressive Democrat
In one brief sentence, describe yourself and why you're running: I am running to continue serving as your progressive District Attorney with a track record of delivering sustainable, transformative justice with integrity and fairness.
These questions are about problems, challenges or topics facing the district attorney's office and how you will try to deal with them if elected. Limit 300 words per answer.
1) Based on your experience, do you trust the Asheville Police Department and the Buncombe County Sheriff's office?
Yes. There is a wealth of competent and capable human resources at both departments. Both departments in the vast number of cases investigated and prosecuted perform professionally in service to victims and the lawful, constitutional, enforcement of our laws. That being said there is a crisis of confidence in law enforcement nationwide and locally in regard to race and justice equity. Law enforcement is empowered to arrest and refer for investigation its own officers when there is probable cause to believe a crime has been committed. It is critical that law enforcement not be placed in a situation where it is investigating itself. To that end APD must ensure that in the future it will make immediate referral of violations of criminal law by its officers to avoid self-investigation. APD must also not delay in consultation with the DA’s Office when such events occur.
2) What do you believe are the most important changes that need to be made to the way the District Attorney's office operates?
Over the past three years we have transformed the practice of criminal justice in Buncombe County and we need to continue this work. We have created wraparound services for victims in the Family Justice and Child Advocacy Centers. We have created new programs for offenders and the general public to ensure folks stay on the right path in compliance with the law in the Justice Resource Center. We have broadened the scope of justice by holding expunction clinics and amnesty days to clear old convictions and arrest process so that people can move on in life without the unnecessary burden and stigma of a criminal conviction. We have created new programs for the public and attorneys to provide accessibility online in traffic matters. We have created reforms to reduce unfair practices in regard to cash bail/bond through our early in-custody dismissal program which has reduced jail population 8% in the last year. After so many new programs and initiatives, it is imperative that we monitor outcomes and ensure that the process is continuing to work the way we designed it to work. This office will continue to work on behalf of Buncombe County and develop new ideas to improve accessibility to justice while we keep our community safe. That is our record over the past 3 and half years and I am dedicated to further expanding fairness and equity in our justice system.
3) Trans and non-binary people, especially trans and non-binary people of color, have traditionally faced discriminatory treatment from district attorneys' offices around the country, both in their treatment as defendants and in prosecutors not taking attacks against them and their communities seriously. What ways will you work to change that?
I know from my past three+ years in office that we have prosecutors and top law enforcement leadership who treat the community with respect, and we strive to both practice and expand equality throughout our organizations. My office is currently engaged in the prosecution of cases involving transgendered victims and we will continue to enforce their rights under the criminal laws and vigorously pursue justice in each and every case. We will also continue to not just acknowledge the LBGTQ community but also advocate for equity and equality in criminal proceedings, as we did when we recognized the historical significance of June 26, the anniversary of three significant Supreme Court decisions in the struggle for equal rights and equal protection under the law for LGBTQ people, to cite one example.
4) Mass incarceration is a serious problem that overwhelmingly impacts marginalized communities. What approaches to prosecution, programs and plea deals do you believe are necessary to change this?
Agreed. This is an issue that must be tackled holistically and we have done that over the past three+ years. First, we have to clear outstanding arrest warrants and other criminal charges so that we reduce the likelihood that an old charge will complicate an individual’s life. This allows us to not just remove the stigma of a record, but also to reduce the likelihood of probable cause in a future interaction with law enforcement. My office has initiated amnesty days and expunction clinics to to clear old warrants and to erase criminal records, respectively. Additionally, all prosecutors must recognize that doing justice does not mean putting a notch on a belt and obtaining a conviction in each and every case. I recognize that, and seeking true justice is what lead me to seek election as District Attorney. Our diversion programs starting with juvenile misdemeanor diversion and going all the way up to our Superior Court Drug and Veterans Court programs work to reduce incarceration and provide justice and healing rather than penalties and stigmatization. My reforms have worked so well that Buncombe County is now tied with a few other counties ranked as having the lowest conviction rates per capita in NC -- because a conviction is not necessarily justice. ()
It is also important to remember that violent crime disproportionately impacts marginalized communities. We will continue to dedicate prosecutorial resources where maximum community safety is achieved by the removal of violent offenders from our local population. It is also important to note that everyone sentenced to prison is ultimately placed there pursuant to judicial order or legislative act per sentencing guidelines. I support review and modification of sentencing guidelines, and I will note that sentencing guidelines are beyond the scope of my powers as a District Attorney.
5) Buncombe County in particular has a serious domestic violence problem. What do you believe is the best approach to fighting this threat?
Agreed--every act of domestic violence is unacceptable and our goal is to eradicate it. We are currently fully engaged in a multi-disciplinary best-practices approach to the problem. We have a Family Justice Center that is a model for other communities and have initiated our first “DV Trial Unit” in Buncombe County DA history. We have added a prosecutor to DV court and supplemented that prosecutor with two additional support staff. The goal is to ensure that victims come to court and have the chance to communicate with the office, make us aware of their needs and concerns and develop relationship and trust. The goal is the same at the Family Justice Center, victims can receive wraparound holistic services and be placed on a path toward safety and healing under one roof in one location. Our DV prosecutor has an office on site together with a victim services coordinator. We will continue to work in cross-system dialogue with other justice system stakeholders to ensure that we are moving on the right path to increased success in these challenging prosecutions.
These questions are about specific decisions or positions. The first word of each answer must be Yes or No. An explanation of one’s position — or an alternative proposal — may follow, with a limit of 300 words. Answers in this section that do not begin with "Yes" or "No" will not be published.
6) Do you favor prosecuting pharmaceutical companies and associated businesses who played a role in the opioid epidemic as a way to combat that problem?
Yes. Civilly. Your question uses the term prosecute which implies criminal prosecution in this context. There are no statutes authorizing such a criminal prosecution in NC at the District Attorney level. These cases are civil matters. Perhaps this question is better posed to AG Josh Stein.
7) Do you support policies, such as District Attorney Larry Krasner has introduced in Philadelphia, to reduce the criminalization of sex workers?
No. A total of precisely one prostitution case is pending among the thousands of pending cases in our system. Nevertheless, though we will continue our lawful and compassionate exercise of prosecutorial discretion in each case, this office’s duty is to enforce the law, and I will not commit to prescriptive outcomes.
8) Will you decline to pursue marijuana possession charges in all cases where more serious or violent criminal offenses are not also present?
No. Every District Attorney takes an oath to enforce the law and uphold the law of NC not inconsistent with the US and NC Constitutions. Also, the District Attorney does not serve as a check on legislative power; voters need to demand from legislators the changes in law they desire. That being said, we will continue to exercise reasonable and compassionate discretion in the interest of justice. We have a record of doing just that in marijuana cases:
9) Will you commit to ensuring that 15 percent of assistant district attorneys are African-American by 2021?
Yes. We will have our first African-American ADA on staff shortly. We are also willing to go further than that 15% goal; our office currently employs 16 ADAs. Something to consider, however, is that our local bar comprises approximately 770 lawyers and approximately 2-3%, are African-American. Diversity is needed throughout the local legal community not just in the DA’s office. We are competing with other communities to attract African-American ADA candidates and the Asheville/Buncombe legal community is not diverse.
10) Do you believe that Buncombe County should end the practice of cash bail?
No. Reality check: this question is not up to Buncombe County; it’s ultimately up to the NC State legislature. I have proposed moving towards a criminal summons system, rather than the warrant system, locally, which is statutorily authorized for non-violent misdemeanors, and that reform will increase fairness. This reform will require the assent and input of local judicial figures and law enforcement--the DA cannot unilaterally make it happen. It is by no means solely up to the DA to “end cash bail” and a candidate that makes this representation either is unaware or is actively misleading voters. To increase fairness, my office has already enacted the early electronic dismissal program that has released more than 450 inmates on minor non-violent misdemeanors. These are people who were arrested who did not need to remain in custody for public safety purposes. Also, we must protect our community and any additional reforms must include safeguards to ensure that those charged with rape, robbery, and murder can be held in custody in the interests of community safety, and securing their presence at trial.