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For Criminal Justice Advocates, Change Starts At The Bottom Of The Ballot

Christopher Connelly
William Roundtree, a canvasser for the ACLU of Texas, was recently released from prison. Now, he's using his story to talk to people about why the district attorney's race in Dallas County matters.

William Roundtree is part of a cadre of ACLU canvassers knocking on doors and talking to people at bus stops and shopping centers in Dallas County to raise awareness of a district attorney’s power to change lives.

It’s a power he knows all too well.

“I got out of the penitentiary on Jan. 29. I did 13 years and 10 months for receiving stolen property,” he says while talking to voters in southern Dallas.

That’s the tail end, he says, of an all-too-typical story in Dallas’ Pleasant Grove neighborhood where he grew up: a toxic mix of drugs, dealing, addiction and stealing; a combination of the wrong choices and the wrong people early in life that led to a few short prison stays and then one long, enhanced sentence for theft and being a habitual offender.

“My son grew up while I was away. My son was 7. He’s a 20-year-old-man now, you know. And I’m a grandfather,” he said.

The 40-year-old has a trimmed beard and a lot of tattoos, and goes by the nickname “Tree.” He got the $12-an-hour ACLU job just a couple days after he got out, after he ran into other canvassers at a transit stop. Most of his co-workers are ex-offenders or have family members who’ve been incarcerated.

Now, equipped with a smartphone and a stack of campaign literature, Roundtree is criss-crossing Dallas to tell people that there’s a district attorney election coming up, and the winner will have the power to shape the trajectory of people’s lives.

The race has drawn the attention of a handful of organizations, including the ACLU, that want to change the way criminal justice operates in Texas. Nationwide, reformers increasingly see prosecutors as one key to reducing the number of people going to prison and racial and socioeconomic disparities that plague the justice system.

“Way back when I was young and started taking these convictions, what if there had been a different agenda in the office of the DA?” Roundtree asks, citing programs that push first-time drug offenders into treatment instead of prison.

“I’m not saying I was innocent or didn’t deserve to be punished, but maybe things could’ve been different in my life.”

Credit Christopher Connelly / KERA News
Elizabeth Frizell, a Democrat, stepped down as Dallas district court judge to run for the DA's office.

A powerful position


These days, only a relative handful of criminal cases are decided by judge and jury. Instead most end in plea agreements worked out by prosecutors. But a district attorney’s impact starts even earlier: They decide whether and how a person gets charged, whether to pursue the death penalty or try a juvenile as an adult. They also have a lot of influence on bail decisions and whether or not a defendant can get out of jail before trial.

"A DA’s race is just as important as a presidential race, but we lose focus on the politics and the policies that are affecting our daily life locally,” because of the excitement of national elections, says Anthony Graves, who’s helping lead the ACLU campaign.

Graves spent more than 18 years incarcerated for a crime he didn’t commit, 12 of them on death row, “so I know personally the role that a DA can play in your life once you touch the criminal justice system.”

Sharon Watkins Jones, the ACLU’s political director, says they won’t endorse a candidate. Instead, the focus is educating voters on the issues and where candidates stand — things like bail reform, transparency and drug diversion programs.

The voter education and mobilization campaign is being done in conjunction with a handful of other advocacy groups like the Texas Organizing Project and Faith in Texas.

Overall, Watkins Jones says it’s about changing the institutional culture.

“Prosecutors are trained to convict, to find people guilty,” she said. “The paradigm shift has to be that their job is to seek justice, whether that’s a conviction or not charging someone.”

Credit Christopher Connelly / KERA News
John Creuzot, a Democrat, is running for District Attorney.

The national conversation

The ACLU plans to roll out similar campaigns across 11 states this year. They want to build on the momentum that’s propelled reformers into top prosecutors offices in Houston, Chicago and Philadelphia over the last few years. This specifically local approach comes as the federal government is changing course and talking tough on crime.  

“This president was elected as a 'law and order' president. He was elected to make America safe again,” said U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions at a press conference late last year.

Since taking office, Sessions has upended a host of reforms put into practice during the Obama administration in the name of public safety. That includes directing federal prosecutors to seek the maximum sentence in even nonviolent drug crimes. Critics say it’s a return to a failed War on Drugs approach. Sessions says it’s about safety.

“We will not cede a community, a block or a street corner to violent thugs, who peddle poison, or violent gangs that prey on even children,” Sessions vowed.

In Texas, though, a tough-on-crime tradition has largely given way to bipartisan reform efforts in Austin. Over the past decade, the Legislature has quietly chipped away at policies that were once responsible for the state’s ballooning prison population. With crime declining, lawmakers didn’t want to keep increasing prison budgets.

Credit Christopher Connelly / KERA News
Sharon Watkins Jones, political director for the ACLU of Texas, greets voters at a candidate forum the rights group organized as part of their voter education and mobilization campaign.

Candidates tout reform

Back in southern Dallas, on a cold Saturday, a couple hundred people packed into a forum at Paul Quinn College to hear the two Democrats running to be Dallas County’s district attorney face off. Both are former judges, both African-American, and both say a less punitive justice system can make Dallas safer and fairer.

“I’m Judge Elizabeth Frizell, and there’s one reason that I want to be DA, and that’s to reduce mass incarceration,” said Frizell, a longtime defense attorney.  

As a judge, Frizell oversaw a diversion court for prostitution. She has been endorsed by Color For Change, a political action committee focused on civil rights and mobilizing African-American voters. The Texas Organizing Project’s political wing has also endorsed Frizell, as has former District Attorney Craig Watkins, the state’s first African-American district attorney.

Her opponent, John Creuzot, is running on a long and accomplished judicial record and points to endorsements from most of the Dallas Democratic establishment. Over the course of his career, he helped push legislation at the state level that led to prison closures in the mid-2000s. In 1998, he launched Dallas County’s first drug diversion program.

“What we did is took people, we didn’t indict them, we didn’t make them plead guilty, we put them through treatment, we cured the problem, and we dismissed the case,” he told the crowd.

On the issues, the pair both point to policies favored by reformers: overhauling the bail system, bolstering the county’s criminal integrity unit and aggressively going after law enforcement officers or prosecutors who abuse their authority.

The winner of the primary will face Republican Faith Johnson, who was appointed by the governor in 2016 after Susan Hawk stepped down to focus on her mental health.

Johnson has also talked about a more compassionate justice system, and organized events to help people expunge old arrests recordsso they can get jobs.

“I’m not a Republican DA, I’m not a DA for the Democrats, I’m a DA for everybody in Dallas County,” she told WFAA-TV in an interview. 

Holding power to account

Anthony Graves says people are hungry for change, but the ACLU and the groups they’re working with are pushing for substance over stump speeches. He said that after the election, the ACLU plans to help hold the next DA to positions they’ve staked out on the campaign trail.

“Every candidate that is coming out now is talking about reforming the system. What we want to know is how they’re going to do that,” Graves said.

Back on the street, William Roundtree says he’s been thinking a lot these days about how policies in the district attorney’s office shaped his own trajectory decades ago.

That’s why he’ll keep knocking on doors to create a criminal justice system with more opportunities than he received.

MoreFind information on your races and candidates in our voter guide.

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.