District attorney of Dallas County | 2018

Marijuana prosecutions and bail reform at the forefront of Dallas DA race

Daniel Nichanian

Appointed by Governor Greg Abbott in 2016, Faith Johnson is now seeking a full term as district attorney of Dallas County. She is running as the Republican nominee against Democrat John Creuzot, a former state district judge.

The Justice Collaborative recently published a trove of data on the Dallas County criminal justice system. (The Appeal and the Justice Collaborative are a fiscally sponsored project of Tides Advocacy.) In this story, I wish to highlight three areas and how they intersect with the DA race.

First, marijuana possession cases represent a significant share of criminal filings in the county, and they disproportionately target African Americans. Since January 2017, the first full month of Johnson’s tenure, 10 percent of all new criminal filings have been misdemeanor marijuana possession charges, according to the Texas Office of Court Administration data. And more than half of the people charged with misdemeanor marijuana possession have been Black, the Justice Collaborative shows. (Twenty-three percent of Dallas County residents are Black.)

Creuzot says that he would dismiss first-time marijuana possession charges, but Johnson rejects that position. “What happens is that then I become my own god,” she said. “I won’t arbitrarily decide which laws I don’t want to enforce.” (Her stance that she could avoid exercising prosecutorial discretion contrasts with her statement to the Dallas Morning News that she would be “always using [her] wisdom” to decide to use “progressive” or “aggressive” prosecution.)

Second is the county’s bail system, which a federal judge ruled unconstitutional last month for producing “wealth-based detention.” After coming into office, Johnson had announced that she would curb pretrial detention over marijuana possession through cite-and-release policies and more personal recognizance bonds. But the Justice Collaborative has found little change since; the share of people charged with marijuana possession on whom bond has been imposed is the exact same in 2018 as it was in 2016. Being held in jail because one is too poor to pay pressures defendants to plead guilty; in both 2017 and 2018, defendants charged with marijuana possession on whom bail was imposed were twice as likely to plead guilty as those on whom it was not. In answering an ACLU questionnaire, Creuzot wrote that the bail system is unconstitutional and in need of statewide reform; he also indicated that he would support releasing people on personal recognizance for “most low-level offenses.” (Johnson did not answer the questionnaire.)

Third is the prosecution of homelessness, which often occurs through trespassing charges. Since 2017, at least 26 percent of the people charged with trespassing have been homeless. Bonds were imposed on nearly all of them, and more than 80 percent pleaded guilty. Creuzot has said that he would curb trespassing prosecutions, and has specifically committed to not arresting homeless people on trespassing charges alone.

Beyond mentioning a “goal of ending mass incarceration,” Creuzot has been more specific than many DA candidates are willing to be by agreeing to set a quantified target. “My goal is to reduce Dallas County state jail and prison unit admissions by 15-20% within a four-year period,” he writes in his ACLU questionnaire. Beyond the policies described above, Creuzot has said that he would make probation terms less restrictive and only seek to revoke probation for violation that threatened public safety—as opposed to a missed appointment, for instance—and has proposed more services to address issues relating to drugs or mental health.


update (Nov. 11): John Creuzot defeated Faith Johnson, the incumbent, on Nov. 6.