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Dallas County District Attorney Outlines Reforms Aimed At Ending Mass Incarceration

Allison V. Smith
KERA News Special Contributor
John Creuzot is the Dallas County district attorney.

In a letter addressed “to the people of Dallas County,” District Attorney John Creuzot on Thursday laid out nearly a dozen broad changes in the prosecutor’s office for Texas’ second largest county, calling the reforms “a step forward in ending mass incarceration.”

Creuzot campaigned on a promise to overhaul the criminal justice system, which he says is overly punitive, and disproportionately punishes poor people and communities of color.

Since taking office, he joined a list of reform-minded elected prosecutors in signing onto a list of principles meant as a roadmap for ratcheting back the tough-on-crime approach that has long prevailed in prosecutors’ offices.

The reforms include procedural changes around bail decisions, expunging criminal records and probation that are likely to reduce the number of people behind bars. Creuzot also puts strict limitations on how certain non-violent crimes are charged, and which will be dismissed.

Those fall into two rough categories: Crimes that Creuzot says criminalize poverty, and lower-level drug crimes, which Creuzot says are disproportionately faced by people of color, even though whites also use drugs at similar rates. African Americans in Dallas County, he says, are three times more likely to be prosecuted for misdemeanor marijuana possession than people of other races.

That caught the attention of David Villalobos with the Texas Organizing Project, an advocacy group focused on issues affecting working class black and Latino communities that backed Creuzot in his election bid.

“We endorsed Creuzot because we wanted someone who will honor people’s dignity and humanity, and what he is proposing today starts to begin to acknowledge that, and that we are not made safer by just throwing people in jail,” Villalobos said.

Limiting drug charges

The first reforms listed in Creuzot’s letter aim to limit the number of people punished for low-level drug crimes. The office is dismissing the cases of people arrested for misdemeanor marijuana possession for the first time, Creuzot writes, so long as the offense occurs outside of drug-free zones like school property, and does not involve a deadly weapon or evidence of delivery. He says he has already dismissed more than 1,000 misdemeanor marijuana cases.

People in Dallas County will no longer face prosecution for possessing trace amounts of drugs – less than .01 grams – and individuals arrested on lower-level felony drug possession won’t be charged until laboratory tests prove the substance in their possession is, indeed, an illegal drug. That means, in most cases, that the defendant will not have to wait in jail while waiting for the lab results to be returned.

Focusing on crimes that criminalize poverty

Other policy changes focus on crimes that Creuzot says functionally criminalize poverty, which he calls “counterproductive for our community’s health and safety,” and which are commonly committed by homeless people and people with mental illness.

Creuzot says his office is dismissing all criminal trespassing cases that don't involve a "residence or physical intrusion into property" because it’s expensive to jail people who are trespassing for lack of a place to go. Instead of jail, he says people caught trespassing should be connected with mental health services if they need them, which could save millions in local taxpayer dollars.

“I urge Dallas County and its municipalities to use the savings to provide affordable housing and mental health services to this vulnerable population,” Creuzot writes.

Theft of personal items worth less than $750 also won’t be prosecuted, so long as they are stolen “out of necessity” and not for economic gain.

Because many people who are too poor to pay fees and fines for traffic offenses have their licenses suspended, Creuzot says that all people charged for driving while their license is suspended, revoked, denied or cancelled will be offered a diversion program and have their charges dismissed when their licenses are cleared.

Among the changes: procedural reforms

Creuzot also laid out changes that relate more to process than to specific crimes. He says his office will proactively expunge the record of an arrest for a misdemeanor offense when people successfully complete diversion programs. Prosecutors in his office have also been instructed not to seek jail or prison time for technical violations of probation like failing to pay fines and fees, or failing a drug test.

The last items Creuzot addresses in his letter relate to bail, an area that activists have targeted for reform. Last year, advocates filed a federal class-action lawsuit charging that Dallas County’s bail policies unconstitutionally jail people awaiting trial who can’t afford to come up with enough cash to get out before trial. A federal judge issued a temporary order requiring Dallas County to change its bail policies. In Austin, lawmakers are considering a range of reforms to state bail laws to ensure potentially dangerous people are held in jail while waiting to go to trial, while freeing those who are unlikely to threaten public safety or not show up in court.

In the letter, Creuzot calls for reform to the county’s reliance on money bail, but says he wants to use his office to force changes now. To that end, he says that people should not be held in jail before their trial unless they pose a serious safety risk or flight risk, and instructs prosecutors not to ask for bail money as a condition for release unless they’re sure the defendant can afford to pay it. He’s also assigning prosecutors to be at the hearings where magistrates determine the conditions for release.

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.