James Williams has served as public defender for Orange and Chatham counties since 1990. He’s also the first vice president of the Chapel Hill Carrboro chapter of the NC NAACP.
At the end of May, he retired from the public defender’s office. But he said, that doesn’t mean he’ll stop speaking out about the injustices in the criminal system.
“Too much of our criminal justice system is about revenge and retribution,” Williams said. “And I would like to see more emphasis placed on reintegration and revival and renewal for instance.”
Williams said he still plans to attend meetings, forums and events to let his voice and the voices of others be heard.
“There’s a lot of work still to be done as it relates to criminal justice reform,” he said. “And we have begun to do some things here in the state of North Carolina and here locally and there were some things that had begun nationally before the most recent election.”
He said one of the major problems nationally is the rate in which former criminals end up back in prison after being released the first time, and that 40% of people released from prison re-offend.
“So many people come out of our criminal justice system unable to get work, unable to find places to stay, unable to get government benefits, unable to get things of that nature,” Williams said. “And so the recidivism rate is extremely high.”
Williams said there have been local and state-based campaigns to make the post-prison acclimation process easier. He said “Ban the Box” is one of those campaigns. It encourages local businesses to remove the “criminal record” checkbox from job applications.
He said North Carolina also promotes justice reinvestment – an idea that fewer people should be sent to prison, and the tax dollars saved should be reinvested into community programs. But, he said, the state is only supportive to an extent.
“That money has not been ‘reinvested’ as I understand it,” he said. “A lot of those savings have simply been shifted back into the general fund. And that’s a travesty and that needs to change.”
Williams said the biggest thing that needs to change is the public’s outlook on anyone with a criminal background. He says 1.5 million people in North Carolina have a criminal record, and they need the chance to make a life for themselves.
“If we’re going to see some of the significant progress that we hope to see over the years there’s just going to have to be more empathy from the general public on the issue of criminal justice reform.”
Photo via UNC School of Law.