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While the Dallas District Attorney race may be a rematch, a lot has changed since 2018

John Creuzot
Bret Jaspers
/
KERA
Dallas County Criminal District Attorney John Creuzot.

John Creuzot has used his three years leading the Dallas County Criminal District Attorney’s office to launch policies aimed at reducing the number of people mired in the criminal justice system – without sacrificing public safety.

Now, as he fights for reelection, Creuzot said there is measurable progress, despite what he calls distortions from opponents.

“I have the data,” he said in an interview. “When I’ve talked to individuals in the community and explained the policy and explained what the numbers are, they haven’t had a problem.”

The Dallas County Criminal District Attorney’s race in 2022 is in many ways a replay of 2018. November’s Republican candidate will again be former DA Faith Johnson. And the same two Democrats are running for their party’s nomination, Creuzot and former judge Elizabeth Frizell.

This time, Frizell is challenging an incumbent who’s made clear choices to reduce mass incarceration – a priority she agrees with. Yet Frizell takes issue with how Creuzot has pursued that goal.

For example, early in his term, he announced a controversial policy to not prosecute people who steal food, diapers, or formula valued between $100 and $750 if the theft – a Class B – if the theft was not for financial gain.

“He didn’t sit down and make sure he had buy-in from all the different departments in the criminal justice system,” Frizell said. She said people are not reporting these thefts because of the policy, a difficult claim to prove.

A photograph of Elizabeth Frizell, who is running for district attorney in Dallas County
Bret Jaspers
/
KERA
Elizabeth Frizell, a former judge in Dallas County, is running for district attorney in the Democratic primary.

Statistics from Creuzot’s office tell a different story: that Class B Misdemeanor thefts in that price range filed with the DA dropped 13% the year before he took office, and then dropped just 1% during his first year when the new policy was in effect. The numbers also show he accepted almost all the theft cases brought to him in 2019, only rejecting about 2%.

Police agencies filed much lower numbers of theft cases during the pandemic years of 2020 and 2021.

Another policy Creuzot enacted to reduce mass incarceration was to not accept first-time, misdemeanor marijuana possession cases. A study from the Deason Center at SMU showed that in Creuzot’s first year, police departments referred far fewer marijuana cases to the DA’s office because of the policy and a new state hemp law.

Racial disparities, however, remained in the referrals from police departments.

Creuzot emphasized that police departments around the county are responsible for those disparities, not his office. A high percentage of misdemeanor marijuana cases start in communities of color with a traffic stop – perhaps for a broken tail light or failure to use a turn signal – that leads to a vehicle search.

“What the policy has done is taken the value out of that type of policing,” he said. “Until it’s completely flushed out and every department has more consistent policies about that, I think you’re going to continue to see some racial disparity in cases referred to us.”

Another recent move that’s given Creuzot’s opponents ammunition is his decision to stop making any recommendations to grand juries – panels of residents that issue indictments.

The change corrects a double standard. Previously, prosecutors made recommendations to indict or not except when a police officer was the defendant.

“To me, [making a recommendation] seems to violate the sense of presumption of innocence,” Creuzot said, and the change means the grand jury can serve as a check on the power of government.

For Frizell, making recommendations to a grand jury is an important part of the prosecutor’s role.

“In grand jury, I’m going to train my prosecutors to make a recommendation in every case, whether you’re an officer, whether you’re not an officer, as to whether or not the case should be officially charged,” she said.

Whoever wins the primary that concludes on March 1 will face Johnson. She held the office until she lost to Creuzot in 2018 and has no primary challenger.

Ultimately, any race with an incumbent will pivot on what voters think about his or her record, according to SMU political science professor Cal Jillson. (He wasn’t part of the Deason Center study).

“[Creuzot’s] sense is that his policies are right and will lead to benefits in the reduction of mass incarceration,” Jillson said. “He could’ve taken a [politically] safer course, but didn’t, and we’ll see what the result of it is for him.”

Got a tip? Email Bret Jaspers at bjaspers@kera.org. You can follow Bret on Twitter @bretjaspers.

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