Charlotte-area residents reached for their wallets to help Rahman Bethea salvage his life.
Now, some of them are calling on the county’s new district attorney to fix office policies that they say unfairly hurt hundreds of low-income defendants each year.
Bethea was arrested in 2016 and charged with embezzling electronic equipment from his employer, the Sheraton Charlotte on McDowell Street.
But as a first-time, non-violent offender, the Charlotte man was offered “deferred prosecution,” a district attorney’s program that would have kept Bethea’s case from going to trial and could have led to the removal of the charges within two years.
There was only one problem: To participate, Bethea had to pay down the restitution he owed the Sheraton by $800. Due to his arrest, Bethea says he lost his job, his home – and his ability to make the payments.
In response, his prosecutor withdrew the deferred-prosecution offer and told Bethea to plead guilty or prepare for trial. Either option also would have left him hamstrung by a felony criminal record.
“If we live in a society where $800 can destroy your life, then we’re not much of a society,” Paul Byrd, a disabled Vietnam veteran from Hickory, said at the time. “This is not right. Yeah, he’s guilty. He’s guilty as hell. But let him pick up trash. … Get this thing off his back.”
After a judge refused to order the DA to readmit Bethea into the deferral program, Bethea’s attorney, Elizabeth Gerber, launched a new strategy.
The assistant public defender says she contacted three of the potential donors in the Observer story – she won’t say which ones – along with a fourth person who spoke with her directly. All agreed to send separate shares of the $800 to the Sheraton.
With the payments made, the prosecutor’s office again offered Bethea deferred prosecution.
“He’s doing well,” Gerber reported this week. “He’s trying to do what he’s supposed to do: Live his life, make amends and move forward.”
‘He is only one of many’
Gerber says preliminary conversations are underway with various groups to establish an endowment to help the hundreds of criminal defendants in similar financial straits afford the court programs they need.
“The county has a number of policies from which you can earn something great, but only if you have the money,” Gerber said. “There’s a happy ending for Mr. Bethea. But he is only one of many. … There’s more work to be done.”
Rabbi Judy Schindler puts it more bluntly. She says the outpouring of community help, while inspirational, should not distract from the need for fundamental reform of court policies that disadvantage the poor.
And she says the responsibility for change falls to new Mecklenburg District Attorney Spencer Merriweather and his staff.
“Neither the donations for Rahman nor the possibility of an endowment fund (should) relieve the district attorney of his obligation to re-evaluate an unjust policy,” said Schindler, a Queens University professor and a member of the Charlotte Clergy Coalition for Justice.
“The district attorney’s office should not shift to the community the burden of ensuring that people are not criminally punished simply for being poor.”
Merriweather says he already has talked with Schindler and other faith and community leaders about the potential inequities raised by the Bethea case. He says his office is ready for a broader discussion in the coming weeks – if other groups are willing to take part.
“We are not going to engage in those conversations alone,” said Merriweather, who was sworn in after Thanksgiving and has announced plans to seek a full four-year term in this year’s elections.
“There is great interest from the community on what goes on at the courthouse and how we can all make the process work better. I have every intention of having those conversations.”
‘This should never happen’
Meanwhile, the Mecklenburg courts, the state’s largest judicial circuit, continues to build on its national reputation for self-examination.
The county’s “Race Matters for Juvenile Justice” initiative has expanded beyond the courtroom and now leads an open discussion on how such factors as race and income impact lives and institutions.
Mecklenburg’s district court judges have enacted a new policy to consider a defendant’s economic status before handing down fines and court fees that the defendant can’t afford to pay.
At the time that change was announced, hundreds of people were being held at the Mecklenburg jail each day simply because they had fallen behind on those payments.
“This should never happen,” District Judge Beck Tin said last year. “It is our intent in Mecklenburg County that this will no longer happen.”
The nationwide push to root out “implicit bias” in the courts has also put once progressive alternatives to traditional crime and punishment under a critical new light.
The county’s deferred-prosecution program, for example, helps hundreds of qualified defendants each year avoid convictions and a criminal record. But as with other efforts, there’s a price of admission.
For deferred prosecution, defendants must pay down their restitution to $1,000 or less.
A similar diversion program for those charged with misdemeanor larceny includes a mandatory $250 training program. Gerber says that cost walls the program off from hundreds of low-income defendants who could benefit most.
Cash bonds questioned
Other groups have called on the prosecutor’s office to reconsider the use of cash bonds, which more affluent defendants generally can afford but which often leave the low-incom facing the same criminal charges languishing in jail for months before their trials.
“There has been an ongoing, and increasingly louder, conversation in Mecklenburg County about equity, fairness and justice,” says Jake Sussman, managing director of Harvard Univeristy’s Fair Punishment Project and a former Charlotte attorney.
“As it relates to the criminal justice system, the district attorney wields the most power. And with that power comes an on-going duty to re-evaluate his office's policies and practices.”
Merriweather says the restitution requirement in the deferred-prosecution program was designed not to punish the poor but to guarantee that victims of crime “are made whole” before defendants receive waivers of conviction and trial.
Retired Superior Court Judge Richard Boner said it becomes more difficult to collect restitution or other payments once a defendant has received probation or entered a deferral program.
“It’s been my experience that you better get what you can for victims while you can still get it,” Boner says.
At the same time, Merriweather says his office’s programs must be evaluated regularly for how they actually work.
“Deferred prosecution was a revolutionary idea. It just needs updating,” he says.
“Every element of the criminal-justice system, even the good ones, you just try to do them better, and that’s what needs to happen here.”