Maybe history is catching up with Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot, or maybe the editorial page of the Dallas Morning News is just catching up with history. Last week the News’ editorial page did a dramatic 180 on Creuzot. They have nearly always viewed him as a loser, but all of a sudden Creuzot now is somebody the paper “applauds.”
The only reason any of this might be interesting to people in the real world is that the paper’s turnaround is driven by two important real-world questions: 1) Does so-called zero-tolerance enforcement of traffic and drug laws really do anything to reduce violent crime? 2) Is zero-tolerance law enforcement carried out in a race-based way that winds up pushing people of color into lives of trouble for things White people typically just get away with?
The immediate occasion for the change of mind at the News had to do with Creuzot’s treatment of prostitution – a thing the paper might have noticed soon after Creuzot was elected two years ago when they began painting him as a crazy libtard who wants all criminals to walk free. The editorial page should have recognized a long time ago that his posture on prostitution is compatible with most of what the paper has to say about it.
For the last two years, the News editorial page has tried to make prostitution its banner cause, often with a peculiarly Victorian bent in which all prostitutes are female, frail, and held in bondage by pimps. Seldom if ever has the paper taken important notice of the absence of a national safety net for runaway kids or the fact that selling themselves to adults for sex is the way many homeless kids get money for a roof over their heads, with or without pimps.
Not long after Creuzot was elected, he announced policies aimed at taking his office out of the business of prosecuting poverty. He said he would decline to prosecute people for homelessness and would not prosecute some petty drug and even theft charges.
The News pounced. “No reform can take root in a city that doesn’t feel safe,” the News said last February in an editorial aimed at Creuzot. “And Dallas hasn’t felt safe for too long now.”
But last week they said, “We applaud the district attorney’s office for a thoughtful program and a committed team …”
They were talking about Creuzot’s diversion program for prostitutes. The editorial cited some recent reporting by Sharon Grigsby, the paper’s hard-working metro columnist, exposing an arrest, bail, and jail system that too often cycles sex workers right back into the same bad life over and over again. The editorial said Grigsby “pulled back the curtain on this deadly dynamic …”
Maybe she pulled back the editorial page’s curtain, but Creuzot has been tugging open the real curtain for 32 years, since 1988 when as a judge he established Dallas’ county first drug diversion court. He has earned dozens of national, state, and local awards from both conservative and liberal groups that recognized a consistent theme in his work: putting people in jail for personal morality problems like drug use and prostitution doesn’t work. It costs taxpayers huge amounts of money, does not reduce drug use or prostitution, and seems to have no effect on violent crime.
Last week Creuzot spoke to the Dallas Community Police Oversight Board on this and the related topic of racial and ethnic inequity. Creuzot presented the board with numbers showing that since Oklahoma relaxed its marijuana laws two years ago, violent crime in the state has decreased by almost 10 percent. In Dallas, while charges filed against marijuana defendants have stayed flat over five years, violent crime has increased slightly.
In his presentation to the oversight board, Creuzot included an audio recording of a previous public meeting in which Dallas Police Chief U. Reneé Hall said arrests for minor infractions like weed and missing taillights offer an effective means of reducing overall crime levels: “If we are going to be serious about going after crime,” Hall said, “that means we go after all crime, to ensure that we are getting all crime taken care of.”
At the same meeting where Hall had spoken, the Rev. Dr. Michael Waters, pastor of Joy Tabernacle A.M.E. Church, took her to task. Waters argued that a recent targeted intensive traffic enforcement campaign in Black neighborhoods by state police, endorsed by Hall, was evidence not of impartiality but of discrimination.
“We know statistically that White people do drugs at a higher rate in this nation than Black people do,” Waters said, “and so if there was a true targeted effort to stop drug trafficking in our city you would understandably have a greater presence in North Dallas than you do in Southern Dallas.”
The National Center of Health Statistics reports a significantly higher drug overdose death rate for Whites than for Blacks. Numbers presented by Creuzot at last week’s meeting showed a slightly higher rate of marijuana use nationally by Black people than White people, but the number also showed a staggeringly higher arrest rate for marijuana among Black citizens than Whites.
Creuzot’s numbers came from Business Insider, which cites several federal agencies as its original sources. According to those numbers published in July, 17.8 percent of Black Americans older than 12 years of age use marijuana, and 16.5 percent of Whites in the same age range use it. But Black people are arrested on marijuana charges at almost four times the rate of Whites.
Creuzot had his own local numbers for marijuana. In a city that is 66 percent Black and Hispanic according to 2019 U.S. Census estimates, the Dallas Police Department since 2015 has consistently filed 10 times the number of marijuana charges against Black and Hispanic residents as against Whites.
The picture Creuzot was painting for the board was unmistakable: arrests for minor drug and traffic offenses do not reduce violent crime, but a racial bias in the way those arrests are carried does inflict a race-based hardship on people of color.
So what to do? Since his early days as a judge, Creuzot has won awards for helping devise diversion programs. Compared to incarceration, good diversion programs consistently produce much better numbers for steering drug users out of drugs and away from criminality, at a much lower public cost. Looking back, it almost seems as if the world should have been able to figure that one out sooner. Which is more likely to help a person who has made bad choices straighten up? Two years sharing a cell with hardened criminals? Or a good counselor?
In an interview some days after his online meeting with the police oversight board, Creuzot spoke about what he calls “pretext stops” – pulling over a motorist for failing to use a turn signal in hopes of finding drugs, weapons, or evidence of some other more serious offense. He said an underlying problem may be the attitude toward citizens in general this kind of training and policing inculcates in police officers.
“If you look at what I’m saying and you look at these pretext stops, they’re not stopping you because you didn’t turn your turn signal on. It may be true that you didn’t put your turn signal on, but they are working under the premise that by doing that they are somehow going to stop violent crime.
“So what is their mindset when they approach you? You train and keep that nonsense going as our police officials do in this city, and then you wonder why they are shooting protesters,” Creuzot says. “It all fits in. You have given a green light to [use] aggression against people who don’t need aggression.”
To be clear, the Dallas Morning News editorial page is not endorsing Creuzot’s broader views or giving him a pat on the back for everything he is doing. They have decided to applaud him narrowly for a policy of diversion (and mercy) for prostitutes that comports with their own narrow and somewhat unworldly view of sex workers as damsels in distress.
But a path to the light is a path out darkness. Who knows? Maybe next the Dallas Morning News editorial page will applaud Creuzot for declining to prosecute murders in cases where it is a known fact that the defendant didn’t kill anybody.