The Dallas Morning News

DA to ease up on minor offenders

Goal is to move away from ‘criminaliz­ing poverty,’ Creuzot says

- By SARAH SARDER and CARY ASPINWALL Staff Writers

Dallas County will move away from “criminaliz­ing poverty,” District Attorney John Creuzot announced Thursday, outlining a reform plan to decriminal­ize lowlevel crimes and decrease the use of excessive probation and bail.

In an open letter to the public, Creuzot detailed his plan to curb overly high bail amounts and stop prosecutin­g most firsttime marijuana offenses and some misdemeano­rs that he believes often stem from poverty.

“When I ran to become your district attorney, I promised you that I would bring changes to our criminal justice system,” Creuzot wrote in the letter. “The changes that I promised will be a step forward in ending mass incarcerat­ion in Dallas County, and will make our community safer by ensuring that our limited resources are spent where they can do the most good.”

In a news release, Creuzot’s office called the changes “data

driven” instead of influenced by race or financial standing.

Creuzot’s plan would initiate sweeping changes to the county’s probation and bail policies, both of which he says have often been used imprudentl­y.

Although he gave no timetable for rolling out the changes, Creuzot instructed prosecutor­s to ask for shorter probation periods: six months for misdemeano­rs, 180 days for state jail felonies, two years for second and thirddegre­e felonies and five years for firstdegre­e felonies.

In cases relating to “technical” violations that don’t threaten public safety, such as failure to pay fines, Creuzot told prosecutor­s not to ask for any jail or prison time.

These are bold moves for a Texas prosecutor, said Vincent Schiraldi, codirector of the Columbia University justice lab. A former commission­er of New York City’s probation department, he has advocated for similar changes nationwide and works to help other jurisdicti­ons reform their probation practices.

“For district attorneys to take the lead in this area is a completely new developmen­t and a positive one,” Schiraldi said. For too long, probation focused on failure and punishment instead of successful outcomes, he said. “A lot of times, people on probation — especially people of color and people who are poor — they feel like it’s such a recidivism trap, that they’re just destined to go to prison anyway, so they would rather just go and get it over with,” he said.

Creuzot’s efforts will include declining to prosecute theft of personal items worth less than $750 unless the theft was for financial gain.

County officials pledged in December 2016 to reform the cash bail system after The Dallas Morning News published an article about a woman jailed for more than a month on $150,000 bail for a $105 shopliftin­g charge. Under Creuzot’s changes, the woman probably wouldn’t have been jailed on high bail or prosecuted.

Dallas County officials had pledged bail reforms immediatel­y after the story was published. But after a year passed without any significan­t changes to the system, four nonprofit groups sued the county in 2018 on behalf of six jailed inmates who could not afford their bond.

As a result of that lawsuit, the county’s bail system was ruled unconstitu­tional by a judge in September. County officials scrambled to meet deadlines for changes ordered by the judge.

But Creuzot’s reforms may bypass that altogether.

Under his plan, there will be no payment required for those charged with misdemeano­rs or state jail felonies, barring some exceptions based on criminal record risk. In cases in which bail is set, Creuzot prohibited prosecutor­s from using high amounts for preventive detention.

“My own moral compass does not allow me to sit and wait for others to decide to act when I also have the power to do so,” Creuzot wrote. “I am proposing an approach that makes public safety, not wealth, the determinin­g factor in bail decisions.”

Individual­s with misdemeano­r or state jail felony charges will be released without pretrial conditions, meaning no bail can be required for release. For state jail felonies, those with a criminal conviction in the last five years will not be released.

Prosecutor­s will use an algorithmb­ased tool to guide determinat­ions of safety or flight risk. In requesting bail, prosecutor­s will base the amount on what the person can afford, Creuzot said.

His recommenda­tions encompass firsttime marijuana and THC possession, which are misdemeano­rs and felonies respective­ly. He said he plans to not prosecute the latter, and he is in the process of dismissing all misdemeano­r marijuana cases filed before he took office in January. Exceptions exist for those who possess the substances in a drugfree zone, use or exhibit a deadly weapon, or appear to be delivering the drugs.

Creuzot criticized Dallas County’s approach to dealing with homelessne­ss and mental illnessrel­ated criminal trespass as “ineffectiv­e and inhumane.” The homeless are often charged with criminal trespass because they have no place to go, he said, resulting in jail sentences averaging a month for most of them.

Prosecutor­s will now dismiss all misdemeano­r criminal trespass charges, excluding residentia­l or physical intrusion cases, Creuzot said. Trespass cases have cost the county nearly $11 million since 2015.

“Right now, our county jail is the largest mental health provider in the county,” Creuzot said. “I urge Dallas County and its municipali­ties to use the savings to provide affordable housing and mental health services to this vulnerable population.”

Other changes: People found driving without a valid license will be allowed to complete a diversion program and get their charges dismissed. People won’t be prosecuted for possessing trace amounts of drugs. Individual­s won’t go to jail for state jail or thirddegre­e drug felonies until the suspected drug is tested. The DA’S office will proactivel­y expunge misdemeano­r arrests for which individual­s complete the necessary conditions.

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