The decline of a society is evidenced many times by either an overenforcement of law or underenforcement in extreme ways, which indicate an internal imbalance. In an interesting story out of Dallas, the DA has declared that he will stop prosecuting “petty” crimes, one of which includes theft under $750 according to a report:
Dallas County will move away from “criminalizing poverty,” District Attorney John Creuzot announced Thursday, outlining a reform plan to decriminalize low-level 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 first-time 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 gives 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 third-degree felonies and five years for first-degree 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, co-director 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 and avoiding prison, 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 in Dallas County to decriminalize poverty 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 the changes that Creuzot announced Thursday, Angela Jessie, the woman featured in that News article, probably never would have been jailed on such high bail or prosecuted.
Dallas County officials had pledged bail reforms immediately after Jessie’s 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 a 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, acknowledging the unusual step of a district attorney reforming probation and bail. “I am proposing an approach that makes public safety, not wealth, the determining factor in bail decisions. … Our system of justice cannot depend on whether individuals can afford to buy their freedom.”
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 algorithm-based tool to guide determinations of safety or flight risk. When requesting bail, prosecutors will base the amount on what the person can afford, Creuzot said.
Soon, prosecutors will begin attending magistration, where bail amounts are set, in order to screen cases according to the new guidelines. Creuzot said he hopes they will soon be joined by defense lawyers at these initial hearings.
Creuzot’s recommendations encompass first-time 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 drug-free zone, use or exhibit a deadly weapon or appear to be delivering the drugs.
Michael Snipes, a retired state district judge and first assistant to Creuzot’s predecessor, Faith Johnson, said the changes are significant, and in line with what Johnson intended to do.
Snipes said all but the changes regarding low-level drug offenses were similar to Johnson’s plan. He said the strategy was “balanced” to protect safety and bring about reform. He predicted widespread support for the recommendations from prosecutors and police who want to focus on more significant crimes.
“We want to take people who can be rehabilitated and make them into law-abiding citizens again,” Snipes said. “We don’t want them to be in jail forever.”
Creuzot criticized Dallas County’s approach to dealing with homelessness and mental illness-related 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.”
In addition to allowing people found driving without a valid license to complete a diversion program and get their charges dismissed, Creuzot’s other changes include:
No one will be prosecuted for possessing a trace amount of a drug. This charge was often used to prosecute those who possessed drug paraphernalia that contained drug residue.
Individuals will not go to jail for state jail or third-degree drug felonies until the suspected drug is tested. When a controlled substance is confirmed, authorities will be asked to issue a summons, not a warrant.
The DA’s office will proactively expunge misdemeanor arrests for which individuals complete the necessary conditions, instead of waiting two years for the statute of limitations to run out.
Color of Change, a nonprofit dedicated to racial justice, issued a statement Thursday in support of Creuzot’s plan. Scott Roberts, the group’s senior criminal justice campaign director, said the changes were “just a start” but a clear example of a local community’s demands spurring action. He encouraged other DAs to follow Creuzot’s example.
“DA Creuzot probably saved at least one life by instituting these policies,” Roberts said. “I hope they crack open the door to a bigger conversation about what we should prosecute people for, arrest people for and lock people up for.” (source, source)
There is much to be said for police and criminal justice reform. It is something long overdue in the US.
However, there is a tendency to oscillate between two extremes- one that says “prosecute everything,” and another to permit varying forms of anarchy. This is seen throughout society, where the pursuit of justice becomes something destructive and without intending to be so.
The danger of what is happening in this case, as it applies to an American context, is that because of the lack of boundaries among the people, owing to a lack of firm moral values consistent throughout the culture and the lack of a coherent philosophy save for the ability to act as one wants to so long as it follows continually changing legal norms based on popular support, is not a solution for social stability in the short term or future. It is a recipe for a continually declining society where the formation of factions continues with a continually growing police force to maintain a basic sense of “peace.”
It is good business for police, which will then be able to get bigger salaries and more lucrative deals from the government. It is good business for major companies that make the machines of war which are used increasingly by the police. It is good business for the owners of private prisons, as the general increase in crime caused by such a permission of anarchy will likely lead to more serious crimes and thus larger contracts.
It is a loss for the common man, who will find himself living under siege in his own neighborhood from criminal gangs who care nothing for law, mercy, or justice.
It is a reflection of the changing state of America, for as her values give way to the coming social and economic changes, so will it also be reflected in the culture’s approach to social norms, boundaries, and law enforcement.