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Dallas County District Attorney Unveils Plan To Keep Young Adults, Mentally Ill Out Of Jail

Christopher Connelly
Dallas County District Attorney Susan Hawk

Dallas County District Attorney Susan Hawk unveiled a program that’s close to her heart on Monday. The new Reformative Justice Unit is aimed at keeping people with mental illnesses and young first-time offenders out of prison. Hawk says jailing young offenders can starts them down a path that leads to more crime.

“Mass incarceration has not made us safer and in fact sending more people to prison has weakened our most at risk communities by promoting poverty, racial disparity, dividing families and creating long-term employment and housing issues for so many first-time, nonviolent offenders,” she said as she announced the pilot program at a South Dallas community center.

The new unit would steer them to a yearlong program that includes job and life skills, therapy and drug treatment, and community service. The program would also target people with mental illnesses; they'd be put on a 12 to 18 month plan to get them stabilized and connected to resources such as health care, housing and job training. In both cases, offenders would have to prove they’ve changed – by holding down a job, staying off drugs or otherwise maintaining new habits – for up to a year before their records are expunged.

“I know that these programs will be successful because I watched it, every single day in my court room,” Hawk said. “And that’s one of the reasons I ran for DA.”

For a decade before she was elected District Attorney last year, the republican oversaw a special court as a Dallas judge that found alternative sentences for the mentally ill. And Hawk’s own experience with mental illness became public this summer when she was off the job for two months while being treated for depression at a psychiatric hospital.

“When you ask me if it’s something to do personally, probably subconsciously at some level it was. I mean that’s the best way I can answer that.”

Hawk said she expects to have up to fifty people enrolled in the program by the beginning of next year. The plan also calls for setting up a board of community volunteers to support people with

Judith Hunter is the medical director for Metrocare Services, which will provide a case manager and evaluator to assist the DA’s pilot program. She says people with mental illnesses have run-ins with the law more often if they are not getting the right medical treatment, so she’s glad to see a move to get them on a better track.

“Their judgment is severely impaired and so they’re likely to wander into places and into situations where they can easily, easily get into trouble – sometimes serious trouble,” Hunter said.

Ed Turner from the Texas Organizing Project says he welcomes alternatives to incarceration. He thinks the district attorney should look at the school system if she wants to get to the roots of why so many people from disadvantaged communities end up in the criminal justice system.

“A lot of people who are going into these programs they don’t have GEDs, they don’t have a quality education so the school system somehow failed them to a degree,” he said.

Turner says students of color are more often and more severely disciplined in schools, which leads to higher dropout rates and an increased likelihood of run-ins with the law. He adds that many kids from tough neighborhoods also suffer from undiagnosed and untreated stress disorders from witnessing violence. He thinks if the DA invests some of her budget in programs to help these kids, the system will have fewer adults to deal with down the line.

Christopher Connelly is a reporter covering issues related to financial instability and poverty for KERA’s One Crisis Away series. In 2015, he joined KERA to report on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. From Fort Worth, he also focused on politics and criminal justice stories.