Name as it appears on the ballot: Shamieka LaCher Rhinehart
Campaign website: www.rhinehartforjudge.com
Phone number: (919) 672-7194 (cell)
Years lived in the state: 41
Please tell us what in your record as a public official or private citizen demonstrates your ability to be effective, fair, and impartial on the bench? These might include career or community service—please be specific.
My score on the Judicial Performance Evaluation survey demonstrates my ability to be effective, fair and impartial. My overall judicial score that I earned from my legal colleagues is a 4.33 out of 5.0. This is survey is given by the North Carolina State Bar and is a gauge that the NC State Bar uses to assess the effectiveness of judges and those who want to be judges. This is an anonymous process. There are 5 sections to be scored individually and then an overall score. I earned my highest section score in the Impartiality and Integrity category. I earned a 4.39. This score demonstrates not only that I have integrity, but that I am also open-minded and fair in that I listen to all sides of the story. All people that come into contact with our judicial system should be heard. Moreover, I was just recognized by NC Lawyers Weekly as a Leader in the Law. I accepted this recognition two weeks ago. I received this award not just because I am a leader in my community as prosecutor, but I also use my leadership skills to make my community better.
What do you believe qualifies you to serve as a district court judge?
I have resided in Durham for the past 18 years. Within my years as a prosecutor, I have always had a keen interest in making my community better for everyone. Essentially, I have spent a large portion my career dealing with criminal cases that affect the lives of everyday citizens in District Court. I have extensive trial experience both in District Court and in Superior Court. I have been the domestic violence felony prosecutor and also the supervisor of the property and fraud team. For the past 4 years, I have been the lead negotiator in District Court where I have always listened to not just the state’s version of what happened, but also the defense’s side to the story. Moreover, I am qualified to serve because I have handled huge caseloads as a prosecutor and I prepared to deal with the huge court dockets as a judge if elected. I was also the staff attorney that solely litigated child support matters for interstate enforcement cases. As a prosecutor, I handled these civil cases for the last 4 years until recently. Furthermore, I have volunteered with various organizations and worked on issues that concern my community. I volunteer because is important for me to know the community that I serve and one knows their community better when they volunteer and go out to meet their community where they are. I know my community well because I work on issues and help the people who have these issues before they come into our judicial system. I believe because of my community service and legal experience, I will be effective and efficient in making sure that our court system is just and that all people are treated fairly.
How do you define yourself politically? How does that impact your judicial approach?
The fact that I am a Democrat would not impact my judicial approach. My political affiliation has not impacted my decisions as a prosecutor. As a prosecutor, I have always treated individuals who come into the judicial system whether they are accused of crimes, witnesses, victims, law enforcement officers and court personnel with dignity and respect. All people should be respected. Moreover, my judicial approach will be one where my decisions are impacted by my application of the relevant facts to the applicable law. Most importantly, I will temper my decisions with not just an understanding of the law, but it will be also important for me to recognize the huge sacrifices and circumstances that various people carry with them into the judicial system, prior to rending a decision. Whatever the reasons that cause people to enter into the judicial system, whether it be lack of maturity, mental illness or substance addiction, and when these reasons become apparent, I believe that these individuals should be provided with opportunities to participate in substance abuse treatment programs or other programs that address the reasons why they are in court. The fact that I am a Democrat will not impact my judicial approach of humanizing justice, if elected.
What do you believe are the three most important qualities a judge must have to be an effective jurist? Which judges, past or present, do you most admire? Why?
First, a judge should have the quality of being fearless in their compassion for those who appear in the court system. Second, a judge should be hard working for the citizenry in which he or she has the privilege to serve. Thirdly, judges must know the applicable law before rending a decision. District court judges hear various cases from family law cases involving child custody matters, child support and divorce cases to criminal cases where they set bonds, preside over misdemeanor trials and accept pleas. They also decide whether a parent’s right to their child should be terminated and handle civil cases as well. As you see, district court judges make a variety of decisions daily that affect the lives of everyday citizens. It is imperative that a jurist possesses these attributes to be effective.
As far as judges whom I admire, there are two: the Honorable Elaine O’Neal and the Honorable Marcia Morey. Both of these judges have the three qualities that I just stated are necessary in ensuring that we have a judicial system, one that works for everyone. I have had the extreme pleasure of seeing these two women preside over District Courts in Durham. Both exemplify treating everyone with dignity and respect; these two women are always compassionate as to the circumstances and sacrifices that many may bring to our court system and their decisions always reflect a keen skill of humanizing justice. Moreover, they are public servants and their judicial conduct on and off the bench exemplify that people and the lives of people matter. They use their judicial power to help people who are in a crisis. Judge O’Neal presided compassionately over our Drug Treatment Court for years while Judge Morey recently made our court system more just for our 16 and 17 year-olds to get second chances and not get criminal records in the Misdemeanor Diversion Program. I have had the pleasure of seeing Judge O’Neal and Judge Morey out speaking to various non-profits, schools and other community event and they always make me proud.
The INDY’s mission is to help build a more just community in the Triangle. How would your election help further that goal?
I believe that my election will create a more just community because I will have compassion for all people who live in various parts of our Durham community. I express this compassion for our community through my diverse involvement and volunteer work with various non-profit organizations. Good judges are those who are fair, impartial and who follow the law. Better judges are those who actually go out into the community and who have a real boots on the ground approach to working on issues prior to these issues and the people with the issues making contact with our court system. This type of approach builds trust and makes our community more just. Furthermore, I intend on being a community judge, one who will continue to make our community better through volunteering for non-profits and serving on boards. I believe trust in our elected officials is better maintained if communities see their elected officials working out in their communities on the issues that matter to them. Finally, I believe that having my election will make our community more just because I am committed to continuing to understand how racism impacts the court system. I have participated in two race equity trainings. I understand that I must continue to understand racism to ensure that our court system is one that works for everyone. Having compassion for all people, volunteering in my community and my commitment to understanding racism, will help me not just build a more just community, but I feel will make me a more reliable jurist too.
What do you think are the three most crucial issues facing the state’s judicial system at the moment? Explain how, if elected, you’d help remedy those issues. And how do you think district courts can play a role?
1. Lack of Funding:
The first crucial issue that judicial system faces is the lack of funding to provide more services and resources to those who come into contact with our judicial system. Our court system is severely underfunded. Providing services during a budgetary restraint creates immense challenges to ensure that those who need help, whether it be mental health treatment, substance abuse treatment or any other type of assistance, get the help that they need. More programs would expand our ability to address the reasons that people come into the court system so that people will not reoffend. However, equal justice for everyone in our court system should not be affected because our court system is severely underfunded. Nevertheless, if I am elected, I could not use my position as influence to secure funding. However, if I am elected, I would work hard with community initiatives that promote one-stop shops, where various organizations are in one location to provide several services. Our new Family Justice Center is an example of what I would like to see more of in our community.
The second crucial issue facing our state judicial system is how to make our judicial system more just for our mentally ill individuals who have been criminally charged. Unfortunately, there is an influx of crimes repeatedly committed by mentally ill individuals. Oftentimes, because of a lack of funding and/or resources, we have to do the best we can with the organizations that currently service our mentally ill community in the court system. However, district courts can create courts or mental health initiatives that can focus more on a therapeutic element rather than a punitive element. The district courts in both Orange and Forsyth have already instituted mental health courts. Over the past year, various members of the Durham community have been strategizing about how we can improve our court system to more just for our mentally ill individuals. I have participated in an organization called Stepping Up along with various elected officials, court personnel and medical professionals where we have discussed this crucial issue consistently. The county has given funding to institute a mental health court in Durham County where treatment will be a priority. If I am elected, I hope that I get to preside over our new mental health court.
The third issue is the recidivism of our young offenders, especially those who are Afro-American males. Unfortunately, our court system has a predominate number of Afro-American juveniles and black adult teens who commit crimes. District court judges can order juveniles or young teen defendants into programs based on what type of services they need whether it be substance abuse, mental health, etc. Specifically, for those juveniles under the age of 16, a district court judge can order programs to help these juveniles so that they can be rehabilitated and hopefully not reoffend. If I am elected, I will conduct a thorough assessment of the reasons that bring these juveniles and adult teen defendants into the court system and I will consider these reasons before I render a decision involving these two groups specifically.
What do you think is the biggest issue facing the district you’re running in?
I think that the biggest issue that faces our district is the disproportionate number of young African-Americans, especially Afro-American men, between the ages of 16 to 24, who are in our criminal justice system. Specifically, it is alarming to see the disproportionate numbers of violent offenses committed by Afro-American males in Durham. It unfortunate to repeatedly see young Afro-American men pleading and receiving substantial prison sentences and/or getting felony convictions that will then affect their lives. It invokes this question for our community: “What is the solution?” However, although the court system can have programs and/or resources that can address some of the possible reasons that we are seeing this issue, the court system itself is not the solution.
Do you think the judicial system is becoming too politicized? Explain.
I believe that the current system of allowing citizens to vote in judicial elections is effective, because the citizenry are ultimately the persons who could most likely come into contact with the District Courts. Having the citizens be able to voice who they want to serve as judge is a good thing. Ideally, judges should not be subjected to any political influences that could come from accepting contributions. Although I believe that the current process in which judges are selected is effective, it still places judges in the day to day stream of politics. There are arguments that a system where judges are appointed could be the kind of reform needed to remove judges away from the political element. However, the frequency of the judicial appointments could still tend to be have the judicial system too politicized. Regardless of which system is utilized, both have a political element.
Some district courts are beginning to implement misdemeanor diversion program for young and/or first-time offenders. What are your thoughts on such programs?
Misdemeanor diversion programs are programs that provide second chances for our youthful offenders and/or first time offenders to maintain clean criminal records. Having a clean criminal record is invaluable, because it protects one’s ability to find employment, housing and to avoid the stigma of having a criminal conviction. North Carolina is the only remaining State that prosecutes 16 and 17 year old youths as adults. Since 2014, Durham County has been operating the misdemeanor diversion program, the first of its kind in our State. During the early stages of establishing this program, I represented the Durham District Attorney’s Office. I have also been the prosecutor for this program since its inception. This program diverts non-violent misdemeanors from the criminal justice system into a program where youths can participate in community service hours, counseling or other services to hold the youth accountable for his or her actions. After successful completion of the program, the case is never formally charged leaving the record of the young offender unblemished. Within the last year, the Mayor expanded the program to include those who are 18-21 years of age and who had cases of possession of less than ½ ounce of marijuana. Programs like these are vital to keeping our youths away from the criminal justice system and showing that one bad decision should not negatively impact the rest of your life because of a lack of maturity. I strongly believe in this program and I believe it is making impact in helping our youth community.
Bails are often issued to ensure that someone suspected of a crime shows up to court. But in some cases the bail amount is so high that the accused—especially those with lower incomes—cannot afford it and thus will remain behind bars without being convicted. How can district courts work to ensure a fair bail system for everyone?
Bails are not issued for the purposes of punishment, but they are issued for the purpose of ensuring that the persons who are suspected of crimes show up for their court dates. Oftentimes, many individuals who have high bonds have difficulty making them because they make much money. Durham County has a pre-trial service program, which constantly reviews bonds of non-violent offenses of those incarcerated. Pre-trial services is a program that remedies situations where those who are charged with non-violent felonies are not just sitting in jail because they cannot make too high of bond that they cannot pay. In cases where people who are charged with non-violent offenses, a court can unsecure a bond that allows the accused to be released from jail. Judges can unsecured bonds with the conditions that the accused is supervised by Pre-Trial Services. Pre-trial Services is a program that offers supervision to ensure that the accused is successful in coming to court rather than being punitive for those who are poor and have difficulty in posting high bonds.
What are your thoughts on implementing mental-health treatment courts across the state?
I am wholeheartedly in favor of implementing mental-health treatment courts across the state, especially here in Durham. As a prosecutor for the past eleven years in Durham, I have repeatedly seen the same mentally ill individuals enter into the judicial system. Oftentimes, these individuals are declared incapable of proceeding to trial by the court and the court dismisses their case. Mostly, our mentally ill defendants are in jail when the court determines they are incapable of proceeding. After these cases are dismissed by the court, there are still concerns that linger as to whether the defendant has a mental health provider, a current mental health plan and stable housing. Having a mental-health treatment court where cases are diverted from the jail into a mental-health court for the purpose of providing therapeutic services to help our mentally ill get treatment and housing, prioritize treatment rather than incarceration. Mental-health treatment courts are vital in addressing the reasons why our mentally-ill defendants commit crimes. Oftentimes, our mentally ill defendants commit crimes because of a lack of stable therapeutic treatment. I am pleased to announce that we have received funding and we have approved a mental-health treatment court in Durham starting soon. Although this is a huge step toward helping our mentally ill receive the services that they need to not re-offend, we must continue to assess whether we are providing adequate services to our mentally ill defendants at all levels of contact with our court system.
In Durham, a lot of community activism has been focused on the the Durham Police Department’s enforcement of low-level offenses such as minor traffic stops and misdemeanor marijuana possessions. What are your thoughts on such enforcement? Do they do more to hurt than to help?
I am aware of the FADE initiatives of making marijuana the lowest priority for charging purposes. Oftentimes, when individuals are charged with possession of less than ½ ounce of marijuana, they are often offered plea bargains of paying court costs or a fine. Unfortunately, there are a disproportionate number of African-Americans who tend to end up in our court system based off of retrieval of small amounts of marijuana pursuant to these traffic stops. Anytime any person, especially people of color, come into the court system and who are subsequently charged with these petty drug crimes, the repercussions seem to be devastating whether it be criminal conviction, punishment (i.e. jail for failure to pay fines) or even coming into contact with the court system at all. Nevertheless, as long as misdemeanor marijuana possession charges are still the law, and if I am elected and these cases are presented for me to render a decision, I must enforce the law. However, I will remain confident that the stakeholders and interested parties in this discussion are represented in the discussion and the decision that will be rendered will be one that is in the best interest of the entire community.