The Dallas Morning News
DA to ease up on minor offenders
Goal is to move away from ‘criminalizing poverty,’ Creuzot says
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.