Get Informed

Subscribe to our newsletters for regular updates, analysis and context straight to your email.

Close Newsletter Signup

Dallas County Democratic DA Candidates Promise Change, But Their Plans Don’t Go Far Enough

Candidate Elizabeth Frizell speaking at the ACLU of Texas candidate forum

Dallas County Democratic DA Candidates Promise Change, But Their Plans Don’t Go Far Enough

On February 10, the ACLU of Texas held a forum for the Dallas County district attorney candidates in anticipation of the March 6 primary. For almost two hours, Democratic candidates Elizabeth Frizell and John Creuzot fielded questions as Anthony Graves, a man who was wrongfully convicted of murder and spent 18 years on death row, led the conversation. Questions on issues like immigration and addiction came from members of the audience who, like Graves, had been directly affected by the criminal justice system. Notably absent was the Republican incumbent, DA Faith Johnson, who declined to participate.

Frizell and Creuzot are both Black Democrats and former judges who left the bench to practice criminal defense. Both are part of a new generation of district attorney candidates who willingly admit that overzealous prosecution is largely to blame for the nation’s incarceration crisis. “There’s one reason and one reason only that I want to be DA,” Frizell said, by way of introduction. “I want to reduce mass incarceration.” Similarly, Creuzot proclaimed that prosecutors have a “legal, moral, and ethical responsibility to reduce incarceration in our criminal justice system.”

Frizell and Creuzot seem to grasp the urgency and importance of criminal justice reform, in stark contrast to Johnson, who has embraced a tough-on-crime ethos and overwhelmingly resisted efforts at reform. If elected, either Frizell or Creuzot will have the chance to reorient the office toward more progressive prosecution, giving Dallas the potential to follow in the footsteps of other major cities, like Philadelphia, Houston, and Chicago, where voters have demanded a different approach to crime and punishment.

Yet, the candidates have shared few details regarding how they would reform the office. Neither has adequately articulated exactly how they would reduce mass incarceration with the existing tools at the district attorney’s disposal. And neither has set clear targets that voters could later use to hold them accountable.

The Dallas district attorney’s office is in dire need of reform. It is the ninth largest prosecutor’s office in the nation, and its prosecutors handle over 100,000 cases a year. And Johnson, who was appointed in 2016, has failed to address even the most obvious flaws.

Take the county’s bail program, for example. Currently, county magistrates set bail in secret hearings, with “little to no information” about a defendant. They depend on a fixed bond schedule, and the bail amount is determined solely by the alleged offense, without any consideration of a defendant’s ability to pay. As a result, 70 percent of the approximately 5,000 people in Dallas jails each night are stuck there simply because they can’t afford bail. And hundreds of those people are charged only with misdemeanors. Dallas has two million fewer people than Harris County, Texas, but almost twice as many people in jail pre-trial on misdemeanor charges.

In fact, Dallas’s bail system is so unfairly punitive that just last month, Civil Rights Corps, a nonprofit organization dedicated to challenging systemic injustice in the American legal system, filed a lawsuit against the county, alleging that the county’s money bail system is a “rampant and flagrant” violation of poor defendants’ equal protection and due process rights.

Johnson has said that “her office does not support any policy that results in the defendant being held in jail before trial or disposition only because they do not have the financial means to get out jail.” She and other county officials claim they are working to develop a bail system that relies on risk assessments, which are used to predict which defendants are likely to get rearrested or fail to return to court, rather than a fixed bond schedule. But that approach is moving too slowly — at best, county officials hope to implement a new procedure before the end of the year.

Johnson hasn’t just dragged her feet on bail reform. She was also reluctant to introduce a common sense cite-and-release program. These policies vary between jurisdictions, but they generally allow law enforcement to issue a citation rather than arrest someone for a particular low-level offense, helping to stem the tide of arrests and incarceration — while potentially saving the county millions of dollars.

In other big Texas counties, prosecutors have coordinated with local law enforcement and used their broad discretion to implement these reforms. Last year in Harris County, for example, District Attorney Kim Ogg announced plans to expand the county’s cite-and-release program dramatically, stating that the office would no longer prosecute most misdemeanor marijuana cases. “We have spent … over a quarter-billion dollars prosecuting a crime that has produced no tangible evidence of improved public safety,” she said at the time. Now, a person caught with less than four ounces of marijuana must hand it over to law enforcement, sign a contract promising to attend a four-hour drug education class, and pay a $150 fee, which can be waived for those who can’t afford it. No charges, no arrest, no record.

There are a number of other cite-and-release policies in the state, including a program enacted just last month in Bexar County, the fourth largest county in the state, and another in Nueces County.

But what about Dallas? Johnson could have easily followed in the footsteps of these other prosecutors. She had the discretionary authority and the political power to implement her own cite-and-release program, and she had support from the city and county legislative bodies. Like other district attorneys, she could have partnered with law enforcement and saved her county a significant amount of money while reducing unnecessary prosecution. And yet, Johnson was slow to implement a cite-and-release program in Dallas.

Eventually, Dallas officials passed a cite-and-release policy for low-level marijuana arrests, which went into effect December 1. But the program still doesn’t go as far as it should. Under this policy, a citation still results in a misdemeanor charge. For many, the penalties for possession are the same as they were before the policy — up to 180 days in jail and a $2,000 fine. And, unlike many other cite-and-release policies, only first-time offenders are eligible for Johnson’s diversion program, which is also particularly onerous — participants have to take a 15-hour class, do a community project, and pay a $620 fee.

And the program isn’t affecting a significant number of people, either. At the end of January, the Dallas Observer reported that police had written just 23 citations for marijuana possession, and that every single recipient was Black or Latino. Meanwhile, in 2018 alone, the district attorney’s office has filedover 500 low-level marijuana possession cases.

As district attorney, Johnson has squandered opportunities to be a visionary, and her refusal to push for changes in Dallas’s criminal justice system means the city has a long way to go before it could be considered a bastion of reform. Still, both Democratic candidates seem determined to lead the way.

For instance, both Frizell and Creuzot have made it clear that they believe Dallas’s bail system is unconstitutional. Frizell supports ending money bail entirely and wants to move toward a risk assessment system. In the meantime, however, she promised to train prosecutors to recommend release on personal recognizance and not to argue against lowering bonds for first time non-violent offenders. Creuzot has not said he wants to end money bail entirely, promising instead to “train [his] assistants to recognize and appreciate the role of risk in determining the appropriate bond amount and to request only an amount necessary to ensure appearance in court.”

Meanwhile, they have also both pledged to make changes to the cite-and-release process, although their promises remain untenably vague. Frizell has pledged to further decriminalize marijuana, while Creuzot has listed the expansion of cite-and-release as one of his top priorities.

There are some areas where the candidates display unfortunate similarities to Johnson. On the death penalty, for example, neither candidate has categorically ruled out capital punishment for the most extreme cases. Last year, Johnson twice sought the death penalty — the office’s first and second time doing so since 2014. Ultimately, both attempts were unsuccessful. Erbie Bowser, who was charged in a deadly shooting spree, was convicted of capital murder but received an automatic life without parole sentence last May after the jury deadlocked during the penalty phase. And in November, Johnson’s office reversed its decision to seek the death penalty for Antonio Cochran, who killed a teenage girl, after a psychiatric evaluation proved he was intellectually disabled.

Despite their similarities on the death penalty, there’s no denying that both the Democratic candidates support more humane policies than Johnson does. Yet, it’s unclear if they would truly reform the office.

Ultimately, they both support most of the broad strokes of criminal justice reform. But the broad strokes are not enough to reduce mass incarceration. Voters need to know how the DA would wield his or her discretion under current law, without the benefit of external funding, outside approval, or a shift in legislation.

Discretion is a prosecutor’s greatest tool and most powerful weapon. To reduce mass incarceration, prosecutors must use that discretion to imprison significantly fewer people for significantly less time. In this office alone, poorly wielded discretion has the potential to destroy the lives of thousands and thousands of people. These candidates must be clear about what offenses they’ll categorically decline to prosecute, and set achievable goals to reduce the prison population by a designated amount. It’s not enough to hint at these objectives. For voters to make informed decisions at the ballot box, these plans must be plainly stated.

Both Creuzot and Frizell have accurately identified the criminal justice system’s problems in general — from mass incarceration and racial disparities to overcharging and police brutality. Both have said they will focus on treatment over prosecution for drug offenses and promise to send more mentally ill defendants to diversion programs. Both pledge to consider immigration consequences in every case. They’ve both promised to engage more with the community, increase trainings for prosecutors and improve transparency.

These may be steps in the right direction, but they are far too vague to inspire confidence. Without additional action, these commitments will not reduce mass incarceration. And anything that falls short of that goal is simply not enough.

Good rhetoric and good intentions often do not translate to effective policy. The candidates for district attorney must also articulate the end game — fewer people spending less time in prison, and far fewer people involved in the criminal justice system. Otherwise, they risk falling into the same traps as Johnson and her more draconian predecessors, and Dallas residents will end up grappling with the same injustices to which they currently fall prey.

Court Watch NYC Is Here To Hold New York City’s ‘Reformer’ District Attorneys Accountable

@CourtWatchNYC on Twitter

Court Watch NYC Is Here To Hold New York City’s ‘Reformer’ District Attorneys Accountable

As the conversation about criminal justice reform increasingly focuses on the nation’s broken bail system, prosecutors across the country have announced new policies that purportedly aim to keep low-income people from being denied their freedom simply because they can’t afford to pay bail.

In New York City, Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez and Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance recently announced reforms that would limit requests for bail when people are arrested for some nonviolent offenses. The media has rapturously greeted these announcements with headlines that allow the prosecutors to portray themselves as part of the solution to America’s incarceration crisis.

But following the announcements by the district attorneys, public defenders saw little to no change in the actual practice of prosecutors, who were still requesting bail on the exact crimes they had explicitly pledged not to. When pressed, the prosecutors’ offices replied that they’re indeed asking for bail less often, but have so far released no data to back up their claim. In addition, many of the new policies include carve-outs for people on parole, people who have been arrested in the past, and those who have had other interactions with the criminal justice system. So, the very people most likely to be arrested in New York City are also the ones who would be the most likely to be held on bail.

Enter Court Watch NYC, a new project that’s officially launching today, which aims to hold “reformer” prosecutors accountable, and to get as many people as possible to sit in on arraignments, where bail determinations are made. These hearings have an outsized impact on whether people who get arrested can keep their jobs, reunite with their family, or stay in school. If bail is set, they can sit in jail for weeks, months, or years awaiting trial simply because they can’t afford it.

“There are so many caveats to these policies,” said Alyssa Aguilera, co-executive director of VOCAL-NY, one of the organizations behind Court Watch NYC, “that they’re not having as much of an impact as they should, and it’s our job to make sure that they’re actually impactful and achieving their intended goals.” The other two organizations behind Court Watch NYC are the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, which raises money to pay bail for low-income defendants while advocating for the abolition of cash bail, and 5 Boro Defenders, a coalition of public defenders in New York City organizing around injustices in the legal system.

Before its official launch today, Court Watch NYC in January began training “courtwatchers,” who have already sat in on arraignments in Manhattan and Brooklyn, taking note of when prosecutors request bail, the charge the person was arrested for, and other information such as the defendants’ language skills and who was representing them.

So far, the project has trained over 150 “courtwatchers,” who can sign up for shifts to sit in on arraignments in the two boroughs. Court Watch NYC organizers hope that knowing observers are present in the courtroom might encourage judges and prosecutors to change how they set bail. “We know that by putting these people who are electing them into the actual courtroom … it can shift power and court practices in that very specific case,” said Rachel Foran, managing director of the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund. “That power shift is going to change the way that justice is meted out on a day-to-day basis.”

The project takes inspiration from court-watching initiatives like Court Watch NOLA, Participatory Defense in California, and the Chicago Community Bond Fund. Another court-watching project in New York City, the Police Reform Organizing Project, focuses on racial disparities in arrests made by the NYPD.

Court Watch NYC plans to share its findings in weekly reports on its website, and will release the data it collects from its watchers. While the reports and data will be helpful in keeping prosecutors accountable, the organizers behind the project say the most important part of Court Watch NYC will be getting more New Yorkers to see how the court system functions, and whether true reform is actually occurring in the courtroom.

“The data is important, but it’s not our end goal,” said Foran. “The project is about community engagement and continual participation in the system and opening an avenue for people to have that engagement.”

More in Explainers

Activists Fed Up with New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Silence on Safe Injection Sites

Activists from Vocal-NY protesting New York City drug policy

Activists Fed Up with New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Silence on Safe Injection Sites

Local activists are set to gather at New York’s City Hall today, urging Mayor Bill de Blasio to end his silence on the idea of the city opening a supervised injection facility, a medical setting for safely injecting drugs. Organized by VOCAL-NY, a nonprofit grassroots organization, the coalition of activists and drug users are calling out what they view as the city’s “war on drugs” approach to a worsening overdose crisis that currently kills one city resident every seven hours.

“We want to call attention to the mayor’s inaction and silence on safe consumption spaces,” Jeremy Saunders, co-director of VOCAL-NY, told The Appeal. “The silence has been deafening.” Saunders noted that cities like San Francisco and Philadelphia are in the process of implementing supervised injection facilities, and that it’s time New York does the same.

In 2016, the city allocated $100,000 to study the feasibility of opening such a facility in New York. The results, however, have yet to be released. On Saturday, The New York Times’s editorial board gave a full-throated endorsement of supervised injection sites.

These facilities have been scientifically proven to prevent overdose deaths­­. Dozens of empirical evaluations of over 100 facilities across 10 European countries and Canada show that these spaces reduce overdoses and public nuisance in city hotspots, while linking hard-to-reach populations with social services and addiction treatment. As evidence has mounted, so has political support for the facilities. But New York’s progressive mayor has yet to take a stand on the issue.

“I’m baffled why the mayor hasn’t come out in favor of this,” Saunders said.

Mayor de Blasio recently earned praise for increasing spending on the overdose crisis to $38 million per year under the Healing NYC program. That praise quickly turned to criticism, however, when reporters learned that half the funding was slated for hiring 84 detectives assigned to Heroin Overdose Teams, tasked with investigating overdoses and tracking dealers. Health and addiction experts say far too much of the program’s funding is dedicated to law enforcement rather than public health interventions.

De Blasio defended his plan in an interview last fall. “I think it’s been very clear in the approach the NYPD has taken that they’re not after the individual who tragically is addicted,” the mayor said. “They’re after the person selling the drugs in large quantities.”

Activists at VOCAL-NY say that’s simply not true. They say cops stalk methadone clinics looking for easy collars and flipping potential informants.

Driving away from a Brooklyn methadone clinic after receiving that day’s dose of medication treatment, New Yorkers Alfredo Padilla and Tara Fedele said they were pulled over by Brooklyn South narcotics officers — the same unit in which two detectives were charged last fall with raping a woman in custody.

The couple told The Appeal that they told the officers they are engaged in treatment and are peer-volunteers at VOCAL-NY, where they distribute clean syringes. The couple said that the officers searched their car without their consent and found a loose anti-anxiety pill without a prescription along with urine in a bottle, which officers contend was methadone. The couple was arrested and booked after the stop. The NYPD confirmed that they were arrested and charged with possession of a controlled substance, but would not comment further on the case.

“Look,” Fedele said. “If people are out there selling pills, selling drugs, by all means, do your job. But don’t arrest people trying to get their medication.”

Padilla, who said he had clean urine in the car’s glove compartment because he was still in the process of quitting heroin, said the officer offered to pay him $200 for every drug dealer he turns in to the police, a claim the NYPD would neither confirm nor deny. Offering cash to the addicted in exchange for information is a well-known tactic used by the NYPD. “I told him I’m happy with my job,” Padilla told The Appeal. “I make $15 an hour passing out syringes, keeping people from getting HIV and hep C.”

Fedele said she was offended by the officer’s offer: “I got off drugs so I don’t have to look over my shoulder and get killed buying drugs on the street for cops.”

Stories like these leave VOCAL-NY’s Saunders fuming. “At the end of the day, the mayor is ceding the NYPD control of this fight above his own Department of Health commissioner, who clearly would not condone this type of behavior,” he said. For drug users trying to stay alive or recover, he added, it’s an example how the “gentler” war on drugs appears not to apply to them.

“The NYPD criminalization approach is exacerbating our problems,” Saunders said.

More in Podcasts