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Should All Thefts Be Prosecuted? Dallas County's District Attorney Says No

Christopher Connelly
Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot pledged to use the prosecutor's office to reform criminal justice in Dallas.

If a poor person steals food or diapers or other essential items that they need but can’t afford to pay for, should they be prosecuted? Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot says no.

It’s one of several new policy reforms that Creuzot called a step toward ending mass incarceration, and possibly the most controversial. 

Creuzot launched his bid to unseat District Attorney Faith Johnson last year, pledging to roll back policies that lead to incarceration and disparities in the justice system, but have dubious public safety value.

On Thursday, he announced the changes as a first step in fulfilling his campaign promises.

In an open letter, Creuzot discussed his commitment to not charge some lower-level drug crimes, which are enforced more often when offenders are people of color. He outlined policy changes related to bail and probation aimed at reducing the number of people in jail.

And he decried a justice system that criminalizes poverty, saying he doesn’t to prosecute offenses that often punish people living in poverty, who are homeless, and who are mentally ill.

That includes a move to stop prosecuting people for theft of personal items worth less than $750. It only applies to necessary items, Creuzot says. Theft for economic gain or resale will be charged.

» RELATED | Read more about Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot and his approach to criminal justice

“If they’re stealing $750 worth of diapers, let’s be honest: It’s going to take a lot of rear ends to put $750 worth of diapers on, so that probably doesn’t fit that category and so we would prosecute that case,” Creuzot said.

Prosecuting poor people for stealing essential items wastes taxpayer money because they won’t come out any more financially stable after they serve their sentence, Creuzot says, and prosecution doesn’t help the business that is stolen from either.

“The question is, if we put them in jail, are they going to pay restitution? You know what the answer is: No,” Creuzot said. “So we’ve burned up taxpayer money for a hungry person or a needy person under this fake premise that we’re going to get the money back. And it doesn’t happen.”

Representatives from local law enforcement groups offered a mixed review of Creuzot’s policy changes, but were unequivocal about the theft policy. Mike Mata from the Dallas Police Association says functionally legalizing some thefts could have collateral consequences, like making store owners feel they need to stop people from stealing themselves if they don't think that the crimes will be prosecuted.

“Either that shop owner is going to have to take matters in his own hands, or he’s going to have to let $600 worth of merchandise walk out of his store,” Mata said. “And so that might force him to get engaged into an altercation that he shouldn’t.”

Sheldon Smith, a Dallas Police Department sergeant and president of the National Black Police Association Dallas chapter, says he suspects thefts may have contributed to Walmart planning to close a southern Dallas location, and thefts could increase in mom-and-pop stores if people don’t expect to be prosecuted.

“And so the little store owner, he has no chance of staying in business. And why would they? And who’s hurt in the end? The community’s hurt,” Smith said.

At a press conference, Creuzot rejected the idea that prosecuting these thefts would preserve public safety. But he added that his office will be monitoring the effect of his new policies on public safety, and will adjust them if he doesn’t think they’re working.

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.