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.
Eliminate Excessive Punishments.
Increase Transparency and Accountability.
Promote Policies that Aid Undocumented Communities.
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.
Issue public statements in support of the Dallas federal lawsuit aimed at ending unjust money bail policies, and call upon the Dallas County Commission to pass resolutions supporting the end of money bail.
Publicly support the expansion of cash-free pretrial bonds and public funding for expansion of the Pretrial Services program.
Until money bail is eliminated, advocate for individualized, adversarial bail hearings at the first hearing before the magistrate, at which the defendant is represented by counsel.
Presume and affirmatively recommend release for all defendants unless there is a clearly articulated substantial risk of harm to the community or high evidence-based likelihood of flight.
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.
Eliminate all fees, court costs, and fines associated with pretrial diversion programs. If fees cannot be eliminated for all defendants, create a robust and formal fee waiver program.
Do not make admission to diversion programs contingent on ability to pay restitution.
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.
Publicly support legislation to outlaw drivers’ license suspensions for non-payment of fines or fees.
Oppose incarceration based upon the failure to pay fines, fees, court costs, or restitution unless there is uncontroverted proof the individual is able but willfully refusing to pay.
Refuse to prosecute sit-sleep-lie laws, public urination violations, prostitution, and other quality-of-life conduct that is a byproduct of an individual’s homelessness or poverty.
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.
Support statewide legislation to end the use of civil asset forfeiture, and work with local officials to end the practice in Dallas.
Prior to the elimination of asset forfeiture, commit to using the practice only in criminal cases after a conviction has been obtained, where the amount in question exceeds $40,000, and after members of the community have had an opportunity to contest, with the aid of a lawyer, a potential seizure.
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.
Never ask for incarceration sentences for defendants charged with simple possession.
Where dismissal is not possible, create and expand cite-and-release and diversion programs for drug offenses involving all controlled substances, including drug possession, possession of drug paraphernalia, and distribution of small amounts of drugs.
Refrain from charging defendants with possession with the intent to distribute a controlled substance based solely on quantity or packaging.
Adopt a policy prohibiting the prosecution of individuals as habitual felons whenever one or more of the underlying charges is for simple possession of a controlled substance.
Publicly support legislation that reclassifies all drug possession offenses as misdemeanors.
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.
Adopt an office-wide policy stating that drug overdoses will not be prosecuted as homicide cases except when there is sufficient evidence of intent to cause death.
Publicly support the creation of supervised injection facilities.
Adopt an office-wide Good Samaritan policy stating that individuals who call the police in response to an overdose will not be prosecuted.
Principle #3: Eliminate Excessive Punishments
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.
Adopt an office-wide policy stating that your office will never seek a sentence of life without parole, or any practically equivalent sentence, for any person under the age of 21.
Refrain from moving to transfer to adult court any child under the age of 16. For children who are 16, refrain from moving to transfer a child to adult court unless charged with a capital offense. In the extremely rare circumstances when a juvenile is sent to adult court, their youthful status and unique circumstances should be taken into account as mitigating factors at each stage of the process, from charging decisions through final disposition.
Do not prosecute school suspension or expulsion cases where there is no use or threat of force resulting in serious physical harm.
Publicly support changing any and all laws that require children to be prosecuted as adults, including through legislation that raises the age of adult criminal responsibility to 18 or, preferably, 21.
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.
Refuse to seek death in all capital prosecutions.
Publicly support repeal of the death penalty.
Examine previously-imposed death sentences within your county and seek negotiated resolutions for sentences less than death, particularly when there is substantial evidence that the death-sentenced individual suffers from an intellectual disability or serious mental illness, or was under the age of 21 at the time of the offense, or experienced childhood trauma.
Support litigation and political efforts to commute the remaining death row sentences imposed in Dallas County.
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.
Establish an office-wide presumption that the least severe applicable charges apply, and that the lowest sentencing outcome is the correct recommendation. Require prosecutors to justify departures to their supervisors, and require that the chief assistant prosecutor approve all maximum sentences sought.
Establish an office policy against increasing or threatening to increase the number or severity of charges in order to secure more favorable plea dispositions or waivers of rights.
Publicly oppose any proposed legislation that would create new mandatory minimum sentences or lengthen existing minimum sentences and support legislation aiming to eliminate such sentences.
Support second chances, even for those who commit serious offenses, by both limiting parole opposition to those cases in which there is a demonstrable and serious risk of future violence and committing to affirmatively advocate for parole on behalf of those who demonstrate growth and maturity during their 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.
Stop prosecutions for broken-windows offenses like criminal trespass, public urination, and prostitution.
Expand diversion programs for offenses where those charged pose no public safety risk, such as low level theft and criminal mischief.
Principle # 4: Promote Transparency and Accountability to the Community
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.
Maintain and publish an electronic case management system to measure the overall effectiveness of the office—including the number of misdemeanor and felony cases filed each month, disposition statistics, pretrial incarceration rates and length of stay by offense category, and average bond for each class of offense—so that the community can determine the effectiveness of policies aimed at reform.
Track racial information at all steps of the prosecution process, and publicly report any significant racial disparities arising at any stage of the process.
Build a staff that reflects the diversity of the community the office serves.
Conduct open sessions with the community at least once every month, and create other public channels for community members and organizations to engage with the office.
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.
Develop clear and public procedures and staff responsibilities whenever an officer-involved shooting occurs, including a robust investigatory protocol and an independent investigatory team that has no regular contact with the law enforcement agency in question.
Release dash-cam recordings and audio or video surveillance related to police-involved shootings within 30 days of any incident.
Commit to a full investigation of any allegation involving police corruption or police violence, including presentation to the grand jury.
Maintain and publicly disclose a list of all officers under investigation.
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.
Fully staff the Conviction Integrity Unit to identify and correct wrongful prosecutions. Keep the division separate from the office’s appellate division.
Create a review process for all discretionary decisions, from charging through disposition, where senior staff examine whether there is sufficient evidence to support the charges and whether the decision is consistent with the office’s policy of seeking the least severe acceptable charges.
Create an office policy recognizing the flaws in informant testimony and develop clear guidelines regarding its acceptable use.
Prohibit staff from relying on discredited scientific techniques such as bite mark analysis or hair strand matching.
Develop clear office guidelines regarding the use of forensic evidence and instill respect for scientific methodology, evidence, and analysis.
Install a complete open-file policy that provides defense counsel with access to all non-privileged information from the moment the charges are filed.
Conduct regular Brady training, require prosecutors to turn over all evidence that arguably falls within the Brady rule, and discipline prosecutors who fail to comply with their Brady obligations.
Principle #5: 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.
Publicly support local ordinances and statewide legislation that affirmatively limits law enforcement’s cooperation with ICE, and oppose efforts like SB4 that seek to enlist local law enforcement as federal immigration agents.
Implement an office-wide policy requiring prosecutors to consider immigration consequences in the charging, plea, and sentencing decisions.
Expand pre-plea diversion programs that allow individuals to obtain dismissals of their charges without entering a guilty plea.
Affirmatively support post-conviction litigation from non-citizens who pled guilty without being advised of the potential immigration consequences of their plea.