The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Transcript: Protecting Public Safety with John Creuzot, Dallas County District Attorney

MR. JACKMAN: Good afternoon, and welcome to Washington Post Live. I’m Tom Jackman, a criminal justice reporter here at The Post. Thank you for joining us today for a conversation about protecting public safety.

Dallas County in Texas is one of the largest counties in the United States, top ten in population, but unlike the rest of the country, Dallas's overall crime rate is dropping. The number of homicides is up this year after declining last year. To help us make sense of this data and these statistics, my guest today is the District Attorney for Dallas County, John Creuzot.

Judge Creuzot, welcome to Washington Post Live.

MR. CREUZOT: Thank you. Great to be here.

MR. JACKMAN: Before we get going, I want to remind our audience that we want to hear from you. Tweet your questions using the handle @PostLive, one word, @PostLive.

And I also want to give our audience some quick background for those who don't know about your career. You were an assistant prosecutor, a defense attorney, and then a judge for 21 years who pushed for drug courts and diversion programs in Dallas with such impact that they named the residential treatment center after you.

MR. CREUZOT: Yes.

MR. JACKMAN: Then you ran for Dallas County district attorney on a progressive platform of criminal justice reform, seeking to incarcerate fewer people and not prosecute low‑level crimes such as marijuana possession and certain types of shoplifting. You recently won the Democratic primary in your pursuit of a second term.

So let's start with some crime statistics now that you've been in office for three years. Last year while violent crime went up in much of America and in much of Texas, it went down in Dallas, including big drops in murder, rape, and robbery. This year, murder is up, but violent crime is down.

MR. CREUZOT: Yes.

MR. JACKMAN: What's going on in Dallas? What's making this happen?

MR. CREUZOT: Well, I think that we have several things working; first of all, an evidence‑based, a data‑based approach to both policing and prosecution. We have a new police chief who came in, working with criminologists from Texas, from University of Texas, San Antonio, and has put in a multifaceted crime plan. That goes hand in hand, though not coordinated, with our approach, and that is we look at the data. We also work with criminologists. We look at areas that we can impact vulnerable populations, people who have been over‑policed and over‑criminalized, over‑prosecuted in the past. We know that that increases recidivism in those groups, and we've taken measures to decrease the criminal justice presence from this office. And the police have also taken measures to decrease the police presence, not necessarily the presence in a neighborhood, but the type of patrolling and policing that they do.

For example, let's take the marijuana cases. We declined to prosecute any marijuana case, with a few exceptions, four ounces or less. Those cases in a traffic stop will take an officer four to five hours to complete between stopping and leaving the jail after they've booked the person in. If that officer is on an eight‑hour shift, then four or five hours of that is blown, and so we had a big problem here in Dallas in responding to 911 calls, the efficiency of what happens once the police officer gets to a home. And so all of that has been corrected.

The police chief also on his own declared that recreational marijuana, two ounces or less, which is 97 percent of the misdemeanor cases, to let the people go and don't arrest them and don't prosecute them. And so what we've also seen from the police chief is he's taken a different approach to violent crime. He's looked at the people who are committing the crimes and the places that they commit the crimes, and rather than having this broad dragnet over certain sectors of the community, he's focused on 300‑feet‑by‑300‑feet grids. And so it's been very effective because he's put officers on top of where the criminals are and where the crimes are committed.

The community is much more accepting of that. The community understands what we're doing here. We no longer prosecute for criminal‑‑simple criminal trespass, people who are homeless or mentally ill, and when you talk about certain types of shoplifting, it's actually a very small category, and it's those who are stealing for sustenance or food, diapers, formula, things like that. So it's not just any theft, but it's one that indicates or suggests a strong suggestion of poverty, and that's the reason why.

So it's kind of a comprehensive strategy that also goes along with an intense focus on the violent crimes and criminals here in this office. As everyone knows, a district attorney's office will not answer a 911 call, but we will try the case. And so we have an extensive training program, mentoring program. I've gone down and tried cases. I do go down to the courtrooms, and I'm present in some of the larger cases, more high-profile cases, and so we have a much better success at prosecuting those violent criminals and getting convictions and prison time.

MR. JACKMAN: You mentioned shoplifting, and that was a big topic of conversation early on.

MR. CREUZOT: Yeah.

MR. JACKMAN: And I believe that you've set out some sort of specific guidelines for what you will and won't prosecute. You mentioned it briefly there.

MR. CREUZOT: Yes.

MR. JACKMAN: And I think cases under $100 go to the municipality, so they don't come to your office. Cases above $100 but below $750 are the ones that you are nolle prossing or, you know, not taking anymore.

MR. CREUZOT: Yes.

MR. JACKMAN: How is that working after three years? There were a lot of small businesses who felt like this gives people, you know, carte blanche to come into my store and take stuff.

MR. CREUZOT: Yes.

MR. JACKMAN: So it's been three years. How has it gone?

MR. CREUZOT: Well, so we're talking about food, diapers, formula, things like that. We're not talking about people who are thieves, who are boosters and what have you. So, first of all, it's unlikely that you can get food over $100 if you're in a small store. It just doesn't happen, and so what we've actually found is the numbers have not changed. The numbers of cases have gone down. It was going down before I got in office, that type of case.

And, also, we reject the same percentage, 1 to 2 percent of cases a year. So we have also talked to the Dallas Chamber of Commerce to see if they have any data that would suggest that this has had a negative impact on businesses or the community. They have none. We've gone to the Black Chamber of Commerce to see if there's any negative data there. There are none. And we've gone to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. We've checked every chamber of commerce that will respond to us, and we can't find any evidence. We've also met with the Texas Retailers Association, the National Retailers Association, and from day one, they said, "This is not a problem. We don't expect that this is an area that will give us any problems." Actually, it's organized retail crime and the lack of police response that they're concerned about, not anything this office is doing.

So, though it is maligned for political purposes, the data show that there have been no negative impact in the community or any businesses in this community by that policy.

MR. JACKMAN: You mentioned the police and their method of policing and using data to police smartly.

MR. CREUZOT: Yes.

MR. JACKMAN: How is your department getting along with their department? There are some cities where this hasn't worked out well, where the police have really pushed back and said, "We want to do it the old way." You know, in New York, sometime back, there was this whole broken windows policy where if you take care of the little stuff, that will handle the big stuff, and it was credited with driving New York's crime rate down.

So it sounds like you're getting along with your police. How is it?

MR. CREUZOT: I do. I get along with all of them. In fact, as evidence that I get along with them and that we cooperate and collaborate, we are looking at a thing called "focused deterrence" with our major police department, which is Dallas Police, and one of our smaller ones, which is Garland Police Department. And what that is, it's a collaborative effort to try to anticipate who the violent criminals are by their recent criminal past, not an old criminal past, and involvement and engagement with police, and that is based on academic research. And so we're doing it with two different universities, and we're showing success. We're able to see who may be violent, and we're offering services and intervention before prosecution.

If, unfortunately, somebody does take advantage of it and they commit a crime, we're going to prosecute them fully, but we hope to intervene and to get them into rehabilitative services or whatever they need, including their family, because what we actually want is for crime not to occur.

In addition to that, let's take the city of Dallas, for example. We recently wrote from our asset forfeiture fund, criminal asset forfeiture fund, a quarter‑million‑dollar check to expand RIGHT Care. So what we're doing is helping the police do crisis intervention because when a mentally ill person comes in contact with a police officer, they're 16 times more likely to be killed. We want to reduce or eliminate that.

We've also given $100,000 to the Dallas Police Department for an initiative that we started and developed, and we had lots of partners with it, but it's called the Dallas County Deflection Center, which is an alternative to jail for the homeless and the mentally ill for certain low‑level offenses.

And then four of our cities in the northwestern sector of the county, we gave a total of $200,000 to. They matched $100,000. So it was $300,000 total. But the purpose of that money was to get a needs assessment on mental health in those four communities. They happen to share a jail, and they're contiguous to one another. And they have some common problems, and so we are on the vanguard of solving problems that come up. The low‑level offender, the mentally ill offender, the poor offender, those people, those are the ones who populate, in large respects, the criminal justice system, but the criminal justice system is not designed to reduce recidivism.

And so everything that we do, every program that we have is designed around reducing recidivism, and it's put into place to measure it. And then we, of course, get an academic facility to measure it, and then we publish our results. And so we've had quite a bit of success with everything so far.

MR. JACKMAN: What about bail reform, which I think is something that you're in favor of? And I've seen police departments‑‑New York comes to mind‑‑that says bail reform has been a disaster because people go in, they go back out.

MR. CREUZOT: Right.

MR. JACKMAN: And I think that you would be of the belief that you still want to keep the violent defendants in.

MR. CREUZOT: Sure.

MR. JACKMAN: But is bail reform helping with everything you just said about decarceration and keeping people in the system‑‑or keeping them out of the system, keeping their families together, keeping them with their jobs? Where are you guys on bail reform?

MR. CREUZOT: I think we're doing a good job. The Texas legislature has put in a new law, which trumped, at least the judge things so, the bail lawsuit that we had. The judge has kind of withdrawn from it and said that it's now moot because of the new legislation.

We never had the problems here. We had a few that were in other cities.

The main thing here is that we, the DA's office, and a person's lawyer are not present at the time of arraignment and the time of setting bail. Of course, we would like to be present. We think that judges would do a better job if both sides are present, but without a defense lawyer, we cannot constitutionally be present.

And so what we have is we think that we've done a good job. We have some violent offenders who can make a big bond, and they have, and they've gotten out. We've had some judges, in my opinion, say and do some inappropriate things in regards to us or the defendant in reference to setting bond. It's usually been on somebody who has a very, very violent history, and if we think that the judge has violated the judicial conduct laws, we have filed the motion to recuse. We've been successful every time, and we've gotten that case in front of a different judge who can take a different look at it and set a more appropriate bond to not only‑‑well, basically to protect society.

Some of these people have committed, you know, one crime after another, and they're still put out there, and based on the comments made in court, we've been able to file these motions and get another judge and get a different outcome. So we're very proactive on keeping those violent offenders in jail, those who continually commit crimes.

I know in some other cities, the DAs, the district attorneys, have been more actively involved, so it's alleged, in getting these people out of jail. I don't see that as my mission. If someone has a past of violent crime and they've committed multiple violent crimes and I don't think there's any reason for me to assume that if we let them out today that they're going to just change, I think the way to keep the community safe is for those people to remain in jail until we get their case resolved, whether it be a trial or plea bargain or whatever.

MR. JACKMAN: Let's talk about guns. Texas has suffered some pretty horrendous mass shootings in recent years. What can be done legislatively to address this, and is there anything that prosecutors can do that isn't already being done to address gun crime?

MR. CREUZOT: I'm not sure other than prosecuting the cases. The problem in Texas, as you've hit on, is that it's almost a free gun state. I mean, there's some‑‑you know, some limitations, but for the most part, if you're the average citizen, you have a right to carry a gun, buy a gun, whatever.

We don't have much by way of red flag laws, but, you know, we have a governor and a lieutenant governor and an attorney general who think it's a good idea to even carry guns in schools.

I can tell you that I've been in legislative sessions and in committee rooms where somebody is testifying‑‑and I know this from personal experience‑‑with a gun, with a barrel on it longer than his thigh. And I tell you, I had a hard time paying attention to what he was saying as opposed to looking at this big gun. I mean, so you can take a gun into the Texas legislature.

When these laws were first passed, we had professors, tenured professors leave the state of Texas because they were not going to be in a school or a classroom with an individual or individuals with guns, and you can understand that. I mean, that can be a volatile situation. Professors deal with a lot. And so it's been quite controversial as to what our laws are.

As far as prosecuting the cases, we do so. Anybody that's a felon with a firearm, we prosecute. Anybody who commits an offense with a firearm, we prosecute it. If it's an enhancement of any kind, we'll use our discretion and put it on. If it makes a difference, we will, but we are fully engaged in protecting this community.

Now, as far as gun safety, I've been a proponent of that. I've done many town hall meetings on gun safety. We've partnered with Moms Demand Action, which is a national gun safety group. I know that I don't have the authority to restrict guns, and I know in the state of Texas, under this current leadership that we have in Austin, that will not happen.

On the other hand, that doesn't mean that we can't prosecute those cases and do everything we can when guns are used illegally to commit violent crimes, to prosecute those crimes fully.

MR. JACKMAN: All right. Let's switch to another hot topic; abortion, front and center right now for many people. The response to the Supreme Court decision on abortion, more than 80 elected prosecutors have committed to not enforcing abortion bans, including you.

MR. CREUZOT: Right.

MR. JACKMAN: You have said you will not prosecute women seeking abortions. Why?

MR. CREUZOT: Well, I said I'd exercise discretion. I think that we need to be realistic. There's some abortions that may be so far along that there's no medical reason to do it, and so, obviously, that may be a crime.

On the other hand, we also know‑‑we know now especially since the Dobbs case that there are many situations where a fetus, though well along the way, is not viable outside the body, and we have put doctors and women in a terrible position.

I remember reading of one where the organs of the child were growing outside the body of the child, and there was obviously a medical crisis. The mother was hemorrhaging. The baby was not ever going to survive, and yet the doctor basically did not know what to do under the current circumstances. And that's an awful position for a doctor and a patient and a mother to be in, and that woman was hemorrhaging. And there was a lot of debate as to what to do. I don't remember exactly what came out.

But we also have issues of whether someone takes medication to abort, proof. How do you prove that? Are the medications legal? Are they FDA‑approved? We also have issues of a person that they're debating or going to debate in Austin‑‑I think they're going to try to make it illegal for a woman here to go across state lines and have an abortion in a state where abortions are legal, and they're going to try to criminalize that here.

So I think we've only seen the tip of the iceberg on this issue, and the various ramifications that will show up, we cannot imagine at this point in time. And so I am in favor of women making‑‑and doctors making choices that are best for the women for their own health care.

I also understand that Dobbs will have a disparate impact on poor women and women of color. There will probably be more lives lost. In this state, it's awful on mother mortality, female mortality during pregnancy. You know, we're one of the poorest states or at least one of the states that funds health care for women at the lowest rates, if not the lowest rate in the nation, and I'm not going to participate in furthering that and criminalizing people making health care choices unless it's obvious that it's beyond the pale of what we expect, I think, in an organized society.

So, on average cases, we're going to use discretion, and we're going to look at each case individually.

MR. JACKMAN: If you use your discretion and decide not to charge people, do you foresee that the governor or the attorney general could try something like has been done in Florida where they've removed a prosecutor, an elected prosecutor from office, and what's your plan when that happens?

MR. CREUZOT: Well, they've talked about removing me long before this.

[Laughter]

MR. CREUZOT: So they haven't‑‑they haven't come up with anything.

Interestingly‑‑so let's talk about removal. I'm going to change this up a little bit. So they took me down to Austin about the theft thing, and so they brought their state experts. And one of the things they discovered is they had no evidence that the theft policy created crime. So that went away, and so the discussion of removing me from office went away.

And when you say exercise discretion in prosecution, there's a lot of things we can do. We can still handle a case but not do a traditional prosecution. We have pretrial diversion, pretrial intervention. We have other things that we can do. I mean, if we can do this with the homeless and the mentally ill and substance abusers, we can do it in other categories, and it doesn't mean that you've turned your back on anything. In fact, what it may be is more trying to help the individual not get back into that situation where they're back in the eyes of the police.

And the other thing, too‑‑let's be honest‑‑what will the police do? I mean, right now, we've had a vote by a committee, nine to zip, which is more than half of the city council, to not fund police activity towards reproductive health care decisions and beyond that don't even keep a written record of it. So I'm not certain how the police department will respond to that. I'm sure they have some state law obligations to keep a record, but I anticipate that the Dallas city council is going to ban any police‑‑or funding of any police enforcement of reproductive health decisions.

So it may be that this never lands on my desk. Also, all of the clinics at this point in time are closed. I don't anticipate that any of them will open. So, like I said, there are ramifications about this that we haven't seen yet, and so, as I said, I don't see that his will happen. I am protective of women, I will be of their decisions and their doctor's decision or health care providers. There may be some outlying situation that we need to deal with, but that's why we say we'll exercise discretion in how we go about this.

MR. JACKMAN: As a judge, you started a drug diversion court, which has been in effect for 14 years now. Has that had an impact? Is that something that you can measure by statistics?

MR. CREUZOT: How about 24 years? [Laughs]

MR. JACKMAN: Twenty‑four. Oh, I did the math wrong.

MR. CREUZOT: We started that‑‑yeah.

MR. JACKMAN: You're right. It was 1998, right?

MR. CREUZOT: That's okay. Yeah. Twenty‑four years, 1998.

MR. JACKMAN: Sorry.

MR. CREUZOT: No, that's okay. So, yeah, that was the first truly structured drug treatment court, diversion court in the state of Texas, and we engaged with Southern Methodist University with two departments, the psychology department and the economics department. We did a recidivism study, which showed a 68 percent reduction in recidivism, and for every dollar spent, $9.34, and avoided criminal just with the cost‑benefit analysis.

So I took that information to the legislature a couple sessions in a row. In 2005, Texas was told that soon, in addition to the 150,000 existing prison beds that we would need 17,000 more. There was a bipartisan effort starting with Rick Perry, the governor, to not do that. And so the question is, what can we do different?

And the model out here that was working and that had been looked at and measured and peer reviewed, all of this research, was divert court. So, basically, I worked with the legislature, myself and other judges and other criminal justice professionals and legislators, bipartisan effort, to establish criteria for treatment and expansion of treatment, be it inpatient, outpatient, continuum of care, et cetera. And so it changed a lot of things that we do and how we look at people, not only in the programs but also in courts generally.

We also taught something that I and others have put together as a curriculum called "evidence‑based sentencing practices for judges."

So the bottom line is we've closed 15 prisons in the state of Texas‑‑the state of Texas, and so that's obviously very significant and I guess that perhaps as a contributing factor of why that 300‑bed drug treatment facility bears my name. But, yes, we've been very impactful on that in the state of Texas.

MR. JACKMAN: I was going to ask you about that, that the number of prisons have gone down, and that has resulted‑‑

MR. CREUZOT: Yep.

MR. JACKMAN: ‑‑in fewer people incarcerated. What about the deflection center that you mentioned briefly? How might that also impact things? Who's going in there‑‑

MR. CREUZOT: Well, we don't know yet.

MR. JACKMAN: ‑‑and how will it happen?

MR. CREUZOT: Well, we don't know yet. It's finished, and it's open, and we've put out one training video to the police department. But it's so recently opened, we haven't had anybody there yet. We're putting out training videos to other departments like Dallas Area Rapid Transit and I think a couple of other entities that are in the city and could easily access it.

If Dallas Police Department does not make full use of it, then I have other police chiefs, to be quite honest, in some of our smaller communities, suburban communities, who have said, "Well, use it." And so if we don't fully utilize it with the entities that we have so far, we'll expand it out to others. I mean, we're going to use it. They use it in Harris County. There's a different system of referring people there, but it's been quite a success in Houston, and we expect that it will be quite a success here also.

MR. JACKMAN: We mentioned earlier that you're‑‑I hate to put labels on anyone, but a progressive prosecutor and‑‑

MR. CREUZOT: Sure.

MR. JACKMAN: ‑‑also one who has accepted financial backing from George Soros, and there's this term going around of "Soros prosecutor." Are you enthralled to Mr. Soros or required to handle certain issues in a certain way because you've taken money from him?

MR. CREUZOT: No, not at all. First of all, I've never met him. I'm not enthralled with him. [Laughs] I really don't know much about him.

However, if you look at my current opponent, general election, was my former opponent general election, and so I don't know about using names and labels, but let's be honest. The people who support her want to turn back the clock, and in fact, she wants to turn back the clock if you look at her campaign materials and what she's talking about. And the people that support her are the people who also support restricting the right to vote. These are also the people that are in favor of cutting back mental health funding, the governor especially, the lieutenant governor, and the attorney general. The attorney general and his supporters support her, and we have stopped him, myself and other so‑called "progressive prosecutors" in the state of Texas. We went in on an amicus or a friend of the court brief and stopped him and had it declared unconstitutional, his prosecution of people of color for voting violations. Of all the cases he brought, 72 percent of them were for African Americans, and we put a stop to that.

And so I think there's a question not of a name, but of values. Where are your values? And so my values are that we have a criminal justice system, especially policing, that‑‑let's be honest. It was developed in the 1870s and 1880s, and it's heavy patrolling of people of color. It's heavy arrest of people of color, regardless of the level of the offense, and that is unfair. It is wrong. It increases recidivism. It breaks down families. It ruins the futures of individuals, whether they be male or female, and so there needs to be a correction in criminal justice.

And I think together with this police chief, where he is focused not on areas of town but on grids where criminals and crime intersect, and that strategy has shown to be effective in reducing crime, violent crime, I think that my philosophy and his philosophy, though not developed together, have joined together quite well, and that we're seeing better police response times because they're not going four or five hours to take somebody to jail for minor offenses. They're able to respond, and I think we're seeing a better job from our policy agencies on the investigation of the cases. In other words, we get a better investigated case that we can do a better job on in trial.

So, you know, I'm not just looking at little points. I'm looking at the big picture, and one of the things you left out is after I retired from a judge, I was actually six years a criminal defense attorney. So I have a lot of experience all the way through this criminal justice system, but I've always engaged in what works. I've always been willing to say maybe I'm doing this wrong or maybe we've done it wrong, and what's a new look? You know, what are the data? What do they show, and what is it that we can do to change this and change it safely? What can we do to reduce recidivism and reduce cost? And if so, let's not be afraid to move forward.

And so all of my campaigns have been based on ideas, not fear, and so we'll continue to promote our ideas, to promote the outcomes, and we'll have an idea‑based campaign, not a fear‑based campaign.

MR. JACKMAN: I have many brilliant follow‑up questions for you on that, but unfortunately, we're out of time. I really do have quite a lot of follow‑up questions here.

MR. CREUZOT: Okay. Have you?

MR. JACKMAN: Thank you, District Attorney of Dallas County, John Creuzot, so much for joining us today.

MR. CREUZOT: Well, thank you for having me. Appreciate it.

MR. JACKMAN: And thanks to all of you for watching. Check out what interviews we have coming up at WashingtonPostLive.com. Register and find more information about our upcoming programs.

I'm Tom Jackman. Thanks for joining us.

[End recorded session]

Loading...