When a Candidate for District Attorney Plagiarizes

It’s an election year. Yay. Like many places around the country, Durham is in the full swing of a primary. One of our locally contested primary races is the Durham District Attorney’s Office. The incumbent, Roger Echols, is facing two challengers, criminal defense attorney Daniel Meier, and nonprofit executive Satana Deberry.

FULL DISCLOSURE: Echols used to be my boss and I think quite highly of him. Meier is someone I consider a friend and of whom I also have a high opinion. I’d like to see Echols stay in office, but would be happy for Meier if he won.

That brings us to our third candidate. I’ve met Deberry once. I like a lot of what she has to say, and appreciate her reformer spirit.

But I’ve got a big problem. I used to be a journalist. I teach in a school of communications. Plagiarism is a major sin in my household. You might as well tack it up right after “Thou shall not covet.”

So what’s that got to do with the race for prosecutor? Well, anyone who pays attention to legal matters across the country and who has listened to Deberry speak will hear echoes of newly elected Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner in Deberry’s pitch. A longtime civil rights attorney, Krasner was elected on a platform of major reform of the criminal justice system. It’s a platform that progressives believe in. It helped propel him to office. It’s no surprise that other people aspiring to win a prosecutor’s office in a progressive city would adopt some pieces of it.

But there’s a difference between building on borrowed ideas and taking language word-for-word. The latter is plagiarism.

(Note: In the passages below some sentences are bolded. They’re presented as they appear on each candidate’s site. The bolding is not an attempt on my part to highlight particular pieces of the block quote.)

Here’s the opening paragraph of Krasner’s issues pitch on his website.

For far too long the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office has been driven by a win-at-any-cost culture that prioritizes high conviction rates and harsh sentencing over more effective approaches that are proven to reduce crime. As District Attorney, Larry Krasner will fundamentally change that culture, from a culture of seeking victory for prosecutors to a culture of seeking justice for victims.

Compare that with the opening paragraph on Deberry’s landing page.

For too long the Durham District Attorney’s Office has been driven by a win-at-any-cost culture that prioritizes high conviction rates and harsh sentencing over more effective approaches that are proven to reduce crime. For too long, the priority has been to prosecute poverty in Durham County and to keep the jail full.  For too long, the priority has been to incarcerate rather than educate.  As District Attorney, I will fundamentally change that culture, from a culture of seeking victory for prosecutors to a culture of seeking justice for victims.

Ok, so maybe that was just an honest mistake. Let’s look at their platforms a little more in depth. Here’s Krasner’s section titled “Stop cash bail imprisonment.

Thousands of the people held in Philadelphia prisons have not been convicted — they simply cannot afford bail and are awaiting trial. Because the courts are clogged with cases, they wait in jail for more than three months, on average. Under Philadelphia’s broken cash bail system, we pay about $40,000 per year per inmate holding those who can’t afford bail, which is sometimes less than $1,000. While suspects who are dangerous to others or who may not return for trial will still be held, Larry will implement alternatives to cash bail for those charged with nonviolent offenses, including monitoring and regular check-ins, an approach similar to the one used successfully in Washington D.C.

Here’s Deberry’s section titled “Stop Cash Bail Imprisonment.

Most of the people held in the Durham County Jail have not been convicted — they simply cannot afford bail and are awaiting trial. Under Durham’s broken cash bail system, we pay about $126 per day per inmate holding those who can’t afford bail, which is sometimes less than $1,000. Almost half of the people in Durham County jail have money bonds of $5000 or less.  While suspects who are dangerous to the public will still be held, Satana will implement alternatives to cash bail for those charged with misdemeanor and nonviolent offenses.

Ok, well maybe that’s just a coincidence. Here’s Krasner’s “Treat addiction as a medical problem, not a crime” section:

Last year Philadelphia had three times as many drug overdose deaths as deaths by homicide. Larry Krasner knows that the solution to drug addiction is treatment, not incarceration. Prisons are ill-equipped to treat addiction. As District Attorney, Larry will build up Philadelphia’s drug court capacity and increase opportunities for diversion, allowing those arrested for drug possession or for minor offenses due to addiction to get the treatment they need instead of incarceration.

Here’s Deberry’s “Treat Addiction and Mental Health Issues as Medical Problems, not Crimes” section:

Since 2013, six people have died in the Durham County jail – including a 17-year-old girl.  None of the people who died had been convicted of a crime. All had either mental health or substance abuse problems or both.

Durham has more drug overdose deaths than deaths by homicide. Satana knows that the solution to drug addiction is treatment, not incarceration. Prisons are ill-equipped to treat addiction – and the Durham County jail is no exception to this. As District Attorney, Satana will build up drug court capacity and increase opportunities for diversion, allowing those arrested for drug possession or for minor offenses due to addiction to get the treatment they need instead of incarceration.

Hmm, ok, so there are a couple of instances. What, it goes on? Here’s Krasner’s “Reject a return to failed drug wars of the past”:

The new Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, is enthusiastically discussing a return to the failed drug wars of the past, with increased prosecution of nonviolent drug offenses and use of mandatory minimum sentencing. As District Attorney, Larry will be our city’s first and best line of defense against this outdated and counterproductive approach, which wastes resources and does not make our city safer. Larry will instead seek to divert non-violent drug offenders into treatment and use discretion to avoid unduly harsh sentences, so that we can focus our criminal justice system on keeping us safe from the small number of criminals who commit the vast majority of violent crimes.

And here’s Deberry’s “Reject A Return To Failed Drug Wars Of The Past”:

The US Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, is enthusiastically encouraging a return to the failed drug wars of the past, with increased prosecution of nonviolent drug offenses and use of mandatory minimum sentencing. As District Attorney, Satana will be our city’s first and best line of defense against this outdated and counterproductive approach – which wastes resources and does not make our city safer. Satana will instead seek to divert non-violent drug offenders into treatment and use her charging discretion to avoid unduly harsh sentences, so that we can focus our criminal justice system on keeping us safe from the small number of criminals who commit the vast majority of violent crimes.

Here’s Krasner’s “Target the crimes that matter most”:

Too many resources are being used to prosecute minor property crimes and minor drug offenses, often related to addiction. Just 6% of criminals commit 60% of our city’s serious crimes, but too many of these cases, notably homicide cases, do not end in a proper conviction. Larry will push for more proactive, intelligence-based policing and will shift prosecutorial resources to focus on the most serious crimes against people, including sexual assault, human trafficking, and homicide. Those who commit violent crimes against any of us must feel the full consequence of their actions.

And Deberry’s “Target The Crimes That Matter Most”:

Too many resources are being used to prosecute minor property crimes and minor drug offenses, often related to poverty and addiction. In Durham County, a small number of criminals who commit the vast majority of violent crimes.  Satana will work for more proactive, intelligence-based policing and shift prosecutorial resources to focus on the most serious crimes against people, including sexual assault, human trafficking, and homicide. Those who commit violent crimes against any of us must feel the full consequence of their actions.

Here’s Krasner’s “Stop prosecuting insufficient and insignificant cases”:

While other district attorney’s offices typically prosecute 80 to 85% of cases forwarded by the police, in Philadelphia the DA’s office prosecutes over 98% of them. It acts as an arm of the police rather than a guardian of the public trust in its own right. Not only does this clog the courts, delaying trials, but it contributes to Philadelphia’s high incarceration rate — the highest among major US cities. This over-prosecution results from a toxic culture that prizes prosecution over promoting justice and focuses on winning convictions at any cost, too often at the cost of justice itself. Larry Krasner will decline to prosecute cases forwarded by the police that lack support by sufficient and legally obtained evidence.

And Deberry’s “Stop Prosecuting Insufficient And Insignificant Cases”:

The District Attorney’s office currently uses no discretion in prosecuting cases forwarded by the City of Durham Police Department and the Durham County Sheriff’s Department.  The office has a history of acting as an arm of the city police and the sheriff rather than a guardian of the public trust in its own right.  Because the District Attorney controls the criminal court docket, this clogs the courts, delaying trials, and it contributes to Durham’s high incarceration rate. This over-prosecution results from a toxic culture that prizes prosecution over promoting justice and focuses on winning convictions at any cost, too often at the cost of justice itself.  Satana will support programs that divert people from the jail and courts.

Krasner’s “Review past convictions, free the wrongfully convicted”:

The DA’s Office has made it a practice to resist exposing new evidence that might reveal that a conviction was made in error or through misconduct by police or prosecutors. Larry will seize every opportunity to expose evidence that might allow an innocent person to go free, no matter how many years have passed. That includes fully staffing the Conviction Review Unit with prosecutors whose character and proven history of protecting the innocent are clear, so that when a pattern of past misconduct is found, any similar cases can be reviewed. To prevent wrongful convictions in the future, Larry will ensure that all potentially exculpatory evidence be shared with the defense, and will generally require as a matter of policy that confessions taken by police be videotaped whenever possible to be entered into evidence. Police officers found to have lied on the stand will be disqualified from testifying.

Deberry’s “Review Past Convictions, Free The Wrongfully Convicted”:

The DA’s Office has made it a practice to resist exposing new evidence that might reveal that a conviction was made in error or through misconduct by police or prosecutors. Satana will seize every opportunity to expose evidence that might allow an innocent person to go free, no matter how many years have passed. That includes staffing a Conviction Review Unit with prosecutors whose character and proven history of protecting the innocent are clear, so that when a pattern of past misconduct is found, any similar cases can be reviewed. To prevent wrongful convictions in the future, Satana will ensure that all potentially exculpatory evidence be shared with the defense, and will generally require as a matter of policy, that confessions taken by police be videotaped whenever possible to be entered into evidence. Police officers found to have lied on the stand will be disqualified from testifying.  Satana will also extend the policy of open file discovery to District Court and misdemeanors.

So why am I hot and bothered by this? She’s not running for editor of the Durham Herald-Sun after all. That’s true. But plagiarism is a form of dishonesty. If one of my students turned in a piece this heavily plagiarized, it would not only mean a failing grade in the course, but a report to the honor court. If one of the journalists I used to work alongside turned in a report this heavily plagiarized, they’d be looking for a new job.

There could be an explanation here that exonerates Deberry. Someone working for her campaign cribbed heavily from Krasner and she didn’t catch it. But ultimately her name is on it, and she’s running to be the top law enforcement officer in our community. The district attorney has got to be above reproach. Durham’s history tells us that loud and clear.

UPDATE: To her credit, Deberry acknowledged in comments to the Indy Week and the Herald-Sun that there were unattributed similarities between her campaign site and Krasners. This afternoon she took down the offending passages.
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