Dallas Platform for a 21st Century Prosecutor
The Dallas District Attorney holds extraordinary power in both the criminal and civil justice systems. How the District Attorney exercises discretion at each stage of criminal proceedings—from initial charging decisions to the sentences they seek to impose—determines whether our local justice system is fair and just. She also wields significant influence as a policymaker and civic leader, and can work with county commissioners, legislators, judges, public defenders, law enforcement, and other community stakeholders to advance justice through policy reforms.
Our District Attorney can and should use this power to end the scourge of mass incarceration. The United States has the largest prison population in the world, and 87 percent of those imprisoned are held in state or local prisons and jails. Dallas County is no exception; Dallas’s incarceration rate is higher than both state and national averages. Dallas County’s over-reliance on incarceration and harsh punishment is both costly and ineffective. It exacts enormous financial, emotional, and social costs on communities across the country while exacerbating recidivism and leading to more crime.
This platform outlines what Dallas’s next District Attorney—through a combination of prosecutorial discretion and policy reforms—can do to address key drivers of mass incarceration. It relies on five basic principles:
End Wealth-Based Disparities.
End the War on Drugs.
Promote Transparency and Accountability.
Promote Policies that Aid Undocumented Communities.
Make Punishment Fair.
Principle #1: End Wealth-Based Disparities
i. End the Use of Money Bail
The continued use of unjust money bail policies contributes to the overall incarceration of poor people and disproportionately harms people of color by keeping them incarcerated simply because they cannot afford to pay bail. Dallas’s unconstitutional bail system has been challenged in a federal lawsuit, and this bail system has led Dallas to incarcerate people pretrial at a rate higher than both state and national averages. Our elected prosecutors should adopt the following policies and engage in the following actions to support the end of cash bail.
ii. Make Diversion Programs Accessible to All
Pretrial diversion creates opportunities for people charged with an offense to get the support and education necessary for rehabilitation, and allows successful individuals to avoid the collateral consequences of a conviction, which can be detrimental to future employment, housing, and education. Some Dallas pretrial diversion programs are expensive - over $1,000 - and many lack a formalized mechanism to have that fee waived based on need. Pretrial diversion should be available to anyone eligible to participate in the program, irrespective of an individual’s ability to pay a fine or fee.
iii. Adopt Policies to Avoid the Criminalization of Poverty & End Debtor’s Prison
Local criminal justice systems disproportionately harm people living in poverty. Whether through the imposition of fines and fees as a condition to resolving cases, or through laws that effectively criminalize homelessness, local actors have imposed a poverty penalty on many people within our communities. Our prosecutor should adopt the following policies to reduce the number of people who remain in jails or have criminal convictions simply because they are poor.
iv. End Civil Asset Forfeiture
Throughout Texas, law enforcement can seize money, personal belongings, and property from people without even charging them with a crime or obtaining a conviction. There is no place for this practice, which has received criticism from across the ideological spectrum in Texas. Our District Attorney must resolve to put an end to asset forfeiture in Dallas.
Principle #2: End the War on Drugs.
i. Keep People Out of Jail for Drug-Related Offenses
Years of experience with ineffective drug laws and the latest medical research on addiction suggest that treating drug use as a public health issue, as opposed to a criminal justice issue, is a more effective approach to reducing harm. Dallas’s prosecutor should adopt the following policies and take the following actions to reduce the number of people in jails and prisons for drug-related offenses.
ii. Treat Opioid Addiction as a Public Health Problem
The opioid crisis claims tens of thousands of lives every year, and has shown few signs of abating. Prohibitionist policies did not win the war on drugs, and they will not end this crisis. Prosecutors can play an important role in ending the crisis, but only if they treat addiction as a public health crisis, rather than a criminal justice concern.
Principle #3: Promote Policies that Aid Undocumented Communities
In the last year, undocumented communities have come under increasing attack because of increasingly vicious federal immigration laws. These policies not only allow for deportation because of minor allegations like possession of drugs, but they also make communities less safe, as undocumented victims fear going to court or speaking to law enforcement. These policies will help local Dallas County’s District Attorney protect our most vulnerable individuals, and our next prosecutor should adopt them.
Principle # 4: Promote Transparency and Accountability
i. Engage with the Community You Represent
Enhancing transparency and accountability within the district attorney’s office is critical to ending the win-at-any-cost pursuit of high conviction rates that fails communities and to ensuring community accountability. Providing the community with information about arrest rates, charging decisions, and sentencing policies will help build and maintain trust between the office and the community it serves.
ii. Strengthen Dallas’s Independent Public Integrity Unit
The district attorney must be committed to rigorously and independently investigating and prosecuting police and other official misconduct. A robust independent Public Integrity Unit tasked with investigating and prosecuting alleged instances of public corruption, fraud, police shootings, or other abuses of power will help avoid concerns about bias in cases involving police misconduct.
iii. Develop Policies that Ensure the Integrity of Convictions
Law enforcement officials and prosecutors will inevitably make mistakes, and that is true in Dallas County, which has had more wrongful convictions than almost any other county in the country. The consequences of wrongful convictions are manifold; the innocent person spends years in prison for a crime he did not commit, and justice continues to elude the victim’s family. Dallas County’s District Attorney must be vigorous in re-examining prior cases whenever there is credible evidence of innocence, and must develop policies that limit the possibility of future wrongful convictions.
Principle #5: Make Punishment Fair
i. Treat Kids Like Kids
Children’s brains continue developing until around the age of 25 and research supports their enhanced capacity for rehabilitation. As a result, children should not be prosecuted in adult court, nor should they be given punishments that preclude the opportunity for redemption. Dallas County’s district attorney should adopt the following policies to ensure that children are treated like children in the criminal justice system.
ii. Do Not Seek the Death Penalty
Dallas County is one of the very few counties in the country where the death penalty is still actively sought; it also has one of the highest number of wrongful convictions in the country. There is mounting evidence that the death penalty is fraught with error, provides no additional public safety benefit over other available sentences, and is routinely used against individuals with diminished culpability, including persons with intellectual disabilities and severe mental illness, youthful offenders under the age of 21, and those who have experienced extreme childhood trauma. Dallas County’s District Attorney should use discretion not to seek the death penalty.
iii. Promote Proportionate Sentencing and Pathways to Second Chances
People are more than their worst acts, and even people who commit the most serious offenses often change their lives profoundly over time. To recognize the worth and potential for growth in all people, it is important for Dallas County’s District Attorney’s office to provide individualized consideration to the character and background of each person and to the circumstances surrounding the commission of the offense. It also is critical for our District Attorney to promote opportunities for release, through parole or clemency, and to help remove barriers to reentering society for those who are released from incarceration.
iv. Eliminate Unnecessary Punishments
Criminal punishments for certain crimes, including quality-of-life offenses, are by definition excessive. They saddle people with criminal records, and therefore lifelong barriers to economic success, who pose no public safety risk.