About 10 days ago, Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot issued a five-page memo detailing several reforms. It covers first-offense marijuana, THC possession, “trace” drug possession, criminal trespass, theft of “necessary items,” probation, the bail system, and more. Reaction came quickly, with statements against some of the reforms coming from Gov. Greg Abbot and Attorney General Ken Paxton as well as various police unions and associations across the state.
Monday morning, Creuzot went before the City Council’s Public Safety & Criminal Justice committee. He ran through his plan. When he got to the piece about theft of necessary items, he took responsibility for the way his memo framed the issue. The original phrasing made it appear as though Creuzot’s office would decline to prosecute any and all thefts of items less than $750. He received more flak on that issue than any other piece of his reform plan. In actuality, Creuzot says the office will only decline prosecution for very poor, first-time offenders who steal food or other personal items out of necessity. If you’re stealing for “economic gain,” you’ll be prosecuted. “If someone goes in and steals $600 worth of bacon it’s not because they’re hungry,” Creuzot said Monday. “They’re selling it.”
But, even clarified, the reform doesn’t sit right for all. Councilwoman Jennifer Staubach Gates expressed concerns that the policy could contribute to existing problems in struggling neighborhoods. She pointed out drug dealing she says is going on near a school in Vickery Meadow.
Creuzot did not appreciate that line of thinking. “Without these policies, what you’re describing is a problem that exists right now,” he said. He said he “rejects the idea” that somebody who’s hungry and poor would take his policy as a green light to commit other crimes.
Criminal trespass has also been a point of contention. Creuzot says he won’t prosecute those charges, either, unless they involve a residence or a physical intrusion into a property. He sees prosecution of these as a double-edged sword. It’s bad for the individuals picked up, many of them homeless and mentally ill, who get tossed into jail without desperately needed treatment for their underlying issues. And its bad for taxpayers, who have spent $11 million since 2015 incarcerating people for criminal trespass.
Pleasant Grove Councilman Rickey Callahan takes issue with a softening of criminal trespass policy. He says that supermarkets in his Pleasant Grove neighborhood have come and gone, citing the many panhandlers and vagrants of the area as a contributing factor for leaving. He says they hassle customers and steal shopping carts and food from the aisles.
Callahan wasn’t alone. Councilman Adam McGough, a frequent advocate of Dallas PD who represents Lake Highlands, stated his opposition plainly. “If we remove that tool or take it away from law enforcement, we will have a definitive negative impact on our small businesses and our communities,” McGough said. Creuzot’s policy not to prosecute some criminal trespass charges does not impact the police department’s ability to arrest and charge individuals, however, and Creuzot says he’s working with other stakeholders to try to get a specific facility where police can take individuals picked up for trespassing. “If we can do that we can solve this problem,” he says.
As much as anything, McGough’s criticism’s focused on Creuzot’s communication efforts. After some not-so-definitive back and forth between Creuzot and other Council members about the extent to which the DA had discussed his reforms with police before announcing them, McGough said it was frustrating that law enforcement was not involved in the planning. Creuzot cut him off, clarifying that aside from the theft of necessary items piece, he’d talked through every reform with local authorities. Dallas Police Department Chief Renee Hall would later say she’s had four or five discussions with Creuzot about his plans.
Creuzot says folks on the furthest right and the furthest left of the aisle can agree our country is over criminalized and our jails are overstuffed. “We can sit around and talk about it and write papers about it all we want,” he says. Putting in place reforms that address those issues will make people uncomfortable. “But I am not going to be implicit,” he says. He believes the voters elected him to act.