Last year, Dallas was ground zero in the national movement to elect prosecutors willing to help shrink the bloated carceral state. The race for Dallas County DA pitted Democrat John Creuzot, a former judge who pioneered programs to put drug addicts in treatment rather than prison, against Faith Johnson, the Republican incumbent who’d earned a reputation for prosecuting killer cops. National and local reform groups backed Creuzot because he promised to take steps to end mass incarceration in Dallas County, where a population the size of a small city churns through the local jail each year. In the November election, Creuzot won by 10 percentage points after pledging to reduce the number of people sentenced to prison and jail by one-fifth during his first term.
Now, Creuzot is unveiling a list of reforms that he calls “a step forward in ending mass incarceration in Dallas County.” The new policies, which he outlined in a 5-page public letter on Thursday, range from refusing to prosecute certain drug cases to reforming probation and changing how the office handles crimes related to poverty and homelessness.
“The criminal justice system has fallen disproportionately harshly on poor people and people of color, that’s just a fact,” Creuzot told the Observer. “The entire system is complicit in this dysfunction. We’re doing what we can within this office to address some of that.”
Under the new policies, the DA’s office won’t prosecute people arrested with misdemeanor marijuana possession for the first time; Creuzot said he’s already dismissed more than 1,000 pot possession cases that were filed before he took office. After the first offense, Dallas prosecutors will offer a diversion program — a fine, a class and drug testing — that, if completed, will lead to dismissal of the criminal charge.
Among other changes, prosecutors will no longer take “trace” cases involving a minuscule amount of drugs, nor will they accept criminal trespass charges against someone who is clearly homeless and in need of services. Creuzot’s letter seeks to reduce the county’s heavy reliance on cash bail — the subject of an ongoing federal lawsuit — directing prosecutors to advocate for pretrial release in many low-level felony and most misdemeanor cases. “Our system of justice cannot depend on whether individuals can afford to buy their freedom,” he wrote.
Creuzot’s 5-page memo follows major reforms made by other so-called progressive prosecutors, whom advocates are pushing to change the system from the inside out. Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner set the high bar last year by refusing to prosecute a wide range of crimes and changing how his office handles plea deals and sentencing. Last month in Boston, Suffolk County DA Rachael Rollins issued a 65-page manifesto on “progressive prosecution” that focused on resolving nonviolent offenses without jail time.
The changes in Dallas show how the movement to elect reformist DAs has evolved in Texas. The new policies go beyond reforms made during the first term of Harris County DA Kim Ogg, who was among an early wave of Democratic prosecutors elected in 2016. Ogg has since been criticized for continuing to seek high bail in misdemeanor cases and now faces a primary challenger from the left.
David Villalobos with the Texas Organizing Project, which rallied behind Creuzot and other progressive DA candidates in the midterms, says the new reforms in Dallas underscore how elections can quickly change policies on the ground that impact poor and marginalized people. That’s also exemplified by a Democratic sweep Harris County in the November election that dramatically changed the landscape for reform in Houston.
“We need people who can help us move away from an incarceration-first mentality,” Villalobos said. “These elections, they’ve given us the foundation for reform.”