Michael Barnes is a name familiar to Charlotte residents. A practicing attorney with more than 10 years of experience, he's been on the city council since 2005 representing District 4. Now, he wants a new job — the job of keeping Charlotte safe from criminals as the Mecklenburg County district attorney.
As reported last week in Creative Loafing, current District Attorney Peter Gilchrist won't be running for re-election after holding the position for 35 years. His departure opens the door for someone else to take over the maligned office, which drops more felony cases than other urban counties in North Carolina, like Wake and Guilford.
But Barnes, like his opponent Andrew Murray -- whom CL spoke with last week in the first part of this series focusing on the candidates running for the office -- wants to change the way the office handles criminal cases and put more people behind bars.
This week, Barnes (a Democrat who says that being DA shouldn't be partisan and doesn't plan to campaign that way) makes his case.
Creative Loafing: The public has a perception that there is a "revolving door of justice" in the district attorney's office. How can that be fixed?
Barnes: The revolving door is caused by a number of things. The DA's office is obviously one component of it. The types of things that I would like to do to slow it down or completely close it would be working toward the opening of the new jail, which would provide another 2,500 or so beds. If we have that capacity, then we could keep more people who need to be incarcerated, incarcerated. Also, there needs to be a tougher stance taken in the DA's office with regard to repeat offenders. [Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police] has been able to clearly track and identify its top 200 worst offenders. And those people should be dealt with in a special way, in that you take a harder approach to dealing with them. People tend to avoid committing crime when they know that the police are watching, the police are nearby and they know that the DA's office is going to be treating them toughly. So, I think it will require, on the prosecutor's part, a more rigid approach to dealing with repeat crime -- and having the capacity in the system to keep people locked up a little longer would be helpful.
What are some other issues in the district attorney's office that you think need to be addressed and lead to more cases being prosecuted?
One of the big things is dealing with the availability and use of technology. There is a pilot program that Wake County is a part of that allows prosecutors and other parties to view [legal] documents electronically. And the way we operate is that everything is still in paper form. What we need to do is get that sort of technology here and get it into the courtroom and get it into the DA's office -- so that when CMPD has video footage available on their system that can be used in court, that we have the capability of allowing the prosecutors to be able to pull up that data and to use it. Bringing in the technology that we need to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the office is one of the key points. Another key point is making sure that the resources that we have in the DA's office are being used appropriately. Right now we still have people who spend inordinate amounts of time looking for paper, in file rooms looking for shucks and files. If you could make that all electronic then you could put in a couple of keystrokes and that all pops up. I also want to pay some attention to providing some training for the attorneys and staff in that office. I am aware of some opportunities to do some training with the U.S. attorney's office on certain types of cases. There's also opportunities that exist for grant money from the federal and state government that we should take advantage of here that would help us to better train staff and provide for some of the technological resources that we need to improve the office. One of the things that should be said is the key problem that people observe about the DA's office isn't that they aren't competent and can't prosecute cases; the problem is that the resources that they need to do their jobs isn't in place, and we have to get a handle on that.
What sets you apart from your opponent?
I think that ... my close relationship with CMPD and my close relationship with other elected officials on city council and county commission, state legislature and the governor puts me in the best position to look at the problems and solve them. I spent the last four years working on public safety, and as a result, we've added the first 71 police positions. I've been trying to add police officers to the street and provide the public safety that people expect and demand. This would be, for me, another step in that process. I am chair of the council's budget committee, and we have a $1.8 billion budget, so I am used to dealing with numbers and figuring out how to get from "A" to "B." I think that's what the position will require, and having someone who has the ground-level relationships that we need to move the office forward will be very helpful. I don't think there is anyone right now who is in this race that has those relationships other than me.