Jeff Nieman grew up idolizing his dad, Guilford County’s chief public defender.
“He went to law school a little later in life, when he was in his late 30s, and I was a preteen, so I saw him go through the journey of becoming a lawyer,” Nieman said of his father, John. “I realized I always wanted to be a lawyer, partly because I wanted to emulate him.”
After working in Chatham County’s district attorney’s office as assistant district attorney, Nieman is set to become District Attorney for both Orange and Chatham counties: he’ll be sworn into office and assume the position in January after defeating co-worker Kayley Taber — who also works in the District Attorney’s office as an assistant attorney — in May’s Democratic primary because he won’t face Republican opposition in November.
Nieman grew up in Orange County and has spent almost his entire life there. He went to school in both the Chapel Hill-Carrboro and Orange County public school districts and completed his undergraduate studies at UNC-Chapel Hill. From there, Nieman obtained his law degree at N.C. Central University.in Durham.
It was during his time at N.C. Central where Nieman completed an internship at the District Attorney’s office in Orange County. There, he discovered a desire for prosecuting criminal cases and bettering the criminal justice system. It’s that same passion that led Nieman to run for District Attorney after current D.A. Jim Woodall — who has been in the position since 2005 — announced in 2021 he would be stepping down.
“When he told us that he was retiring, I thought about it and realized the reasons for running for D.A. were very similar, but maybe larger in scope, as to why I decided on assistant D.A.,” Nieman said. “It’s a way that I could use my training, experience and my license to practice law in a way that really has an impact on the community.”
Nieman said he wants to focus on certain goals as District Attorney: ending the criminalization of poverty, addressing racial disparities in the criminal justice system and administering justice in the fairest way possible.
“Those were the those were the bedrock planks of my platform running, and I would say that’s why I decided to run,” Nieman said. “The place that I could do that and have the most effect to try to move our local system in those directions was to be the district attorney.”
He wants to ensure justice is served fairly and is not targeting one group more than the other, and that’s where he says his campaign goals come in. Nieman’s time in the District Attorney’s office has been spent trying to combat what he calls the “criminalization of poverty.” He said the way this mostly presents itself is in traffic court, where fees can quickly add up.
“What I’ve observed is a lot of people don’t come to court, not because they are trying to be scofflaws, but because they’re poor, housing insecure or food insecure,” Nieman explained. “They don’t come to court because they know they don’t have the money to pay the ticket, and some things that have exacerbated that is that the court costs and especially the late fees that get associated with it if you don’t pay a ticket on time have exploded.”
Nieman explained court fees related to traffic court proceedings have quadrupled in the 15 years he has worked as an assistant D.A., outpacing inflation. He said because of this, many of those who experience poverty and have minor offenses end up stuck in a cycle where they can’t afford to go to court.
“What I saw is a lot of people who their only real offense was driving and not having enough money to handle the the sort of things that come along with driving a motor vehicle,” Nieman said. “I’m not discounting the importance of of those laws, but what happened is that the consequence was far outstretching the wrongdoing.”
Nieman set up a driver’s license restoration program in 2009 to help address the issue of poverty in the criminal justice system. With the help Woodall, Nieman advocated for the Driver’s License Restoration Act, which was enacted in 2015.
“That bill was modeled after proposals that I made about how we could change the system of driving licenses revoked,” he said. “It’s still not perfect, but it improved the process a lot and at least offered a fair path to people getting out of from under that.”
Another important issue for Nieman is addressing racial inequities within the counties’ criminal justice system.
According to the NAACP, there are 6.8 million Americans incarcerated across the country, and Black Americans make up 34% of the total prison population. In addition to that, Black Americans are five times more likely to be arrested than their white counterparts.
“We all know that people of color and underrepresented communities are over represented in the criminal justice system among people who are charged and convicted of crime,” Nieman said. “Most of us agree that the causes of that start way before they enter the courthouse door. There’s a lot of systemic and societal things that helped feed that, but that doesn’t absolve those of us who work in the courthouse to do our part.”
Nieman said he wants to make more intentional and diverse hires in the District Attorney’s office, as he said the current staff “doesn’t reflect the community in Orange and Chatham counties.”
“I don’t think that’s because the current D.A. hasn’t tried or doesn’t care about that, but the bottom line is that we’re not as diverse as we should be, and we need to do better,” he said. “We need to do very intentional recruiting, particularly at our local public law schools … UNC Chapel Hill and my alma mater, North Carolina Central, connecting with the Black Law Students Association and other organizations that represent underrepresented communities and work hard to recruit in those communities when they’re in law school to get them interested in becoming an assistant.”
In addition to these issues, Nieman said a new issue he is adamant about is continuing to protect abortion rights. Nieman said in light of Roe v. Wade being overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, he would never prosecute cases related to abortion or access to it.
“I am not aware of there being any intention to get into the business of charging people with crimes related to the current 20-week ban in North Carolina, but if they did, I wouldn’t prosecute the cases,” he said. “I had some really heartfelt discussions with younger women who had asked me about that, but with a lot of people who said that this was important issue, and then when I told them my stance on it, they felt like that was very compelling.”
After November’s election, Nieman is expected to take the oath of office and assume his position Jan.1. For the Orange County native, he is excited to start work in Chatham as the next District Attorney.
“I have a very progressive view about how the direction our criminal justice system should go,” Nieman said. “It should be fair and proportionate to the wrongdoing done and shouldn’t be serving to keep people to keep people ensnared in the criminal justice system longer than is fair for what they did.”
Reporter Taylor Heeden can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter at @HeedenTaylor.