A little over a year ago, The Dallas Morning News hired a new editorial page editor, Brendan Miniter, from the (George W.) Bush Presidential Center (Library) in Dallas. Ever since, the page has been embarrassing. And I guess it would be fair to wonder who is embarrassed. Clearly not the News.
Me. I am embarrassed for them. And it’s not ideological, exactly. It’s more pride of craft. Let me explain.
Last week, the News published what it obviously intended to be a special editorial. The editors devoted all of the column space normally apportioned to two editorials to just one great big fat one, under the headline, “Is bail reform the cause of Dallas’ climbing crime?”
To cut to the chase, that’s not at all what the editorial was really all about. You had to slog through a rehash of last year’s crime statistics to get to it, but finally the editorial showed its cards. Whoever wrote it was bending over backward to find some way to blame the city’s recent increase in crime on two people.
One was a federal judge who ordered Dallas two years ago to straighten up its bail bond system. The other — and the real target — was Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot, for whom the editorial page has always had a huge, crazy, bad jones.
The editorial says: “The connection, if any, between the federal order and Creuzot’s policies and Dallas’ spike in crime has not been studied or even substantially addressed in public in the way Dallas’ reduced police force has been.”
And so, they studied it? No. They didn’t study squat. In fact, the few meager facts sprinkled sparsely through the editorial all argue against a connection between Creuzot, his policies and the crime increase.
But the Morning News editorial page badly wants to blame those escalating crime numbers on him. The editors aggregate Creuzot with other prosecutors around the country who are experimenting with criminal justice reform at the local level, and some parallels do exist.
Creuzot has called for de-criminalizing behaviors like homelessness that are driven by extreme poverty. He likes the idea of using strategies other than incarceration, notably diversion and recovery programs, for other minor crimes associated with drug abuse, poverty and mental illness.
The News editorial page wants to sweep all of that into a single bin marked “liberalism.” In this editorial, they pinpoint ideas for reforming so-called “cash bail.” That’s the system by which defendants awaiting trial are held in jail if they can’t come up with a certain amount of money.
“The question of bail reform, and specifically the common practice of cash bail, has been a concern for years,” the editorial says. “But only in recent years has it swept into major cities as policy through both court orders and the election of more progressive district attorneys and judges as part of a wider repudiation of ‘tough on crime’ laws passed in the ’90s.”
But that’s not an honest or complete picture of bail reform in particular or criminal justice reform in general. A very significant level of push for reform is coming from some very conservative voices.
Right-wing powerhouse Charles Koch, chairman and CEO of Koch Industries, has become a major force for bail reform, recently partnering with Google, which agreed to stop running ads for bail bond companies. (I don’t get exactly how not running the ads for the bail bond guys helps bring about bail reform, but it does say Google opposes the existing cash bail system.)
So have all the right-wingers turned into bleeding hearts? Almost by definition, no. But they have figured out that locking people up for petty offenses just gets them fired from their jobs, which keeps them in trouble, which puts them back in jail, which means the taxpayers have to keep paying the upkeep on them that much longer.
No one claims that the alternative, diversion therapy, is any kind of lock-cinch sure thing. But a solid stack of statistical history now proves that diversion works way better than jail or prison. And way cheaper.
This is a rare instance where liberal and conservative impulses intersect. The liberal idea is that people can change for the better if you give them half an opening. The conservative perspective is a question: Why should the taxpayer feed, clothe and house people forever and then have to pay somebody else to supervise their showers if there’s some halfway reasonable way the taxpayer can get out of it?
And then this: Shouldn’t both liberals and conservatives want people to be able to take care of their own damn destinies? How is it either liberal or conservative to keep people penned up like farm animals for years if there is some better way to bring about an orderly society?
In 2018, violent crime in Dallas went down by 6%. In 2019, it went up again by 15%. No one knows what drives those cycles. A graphic compiled by the Dallas Police Department for a recent briefing shows a crime rate in Dallas during the economic boom years of the mid-2000s at twice what it is now.
Crime began to fall precipitously in Dallas right around the time of the Bush economic collapse in 2008. Go figure. Fewer Rolexes to steal? Nobody knows.
Creuzot has proposed a number of fixes for the existing bail bond system, all pretty much in line with what Koch and Google are calling for. It has nothing to do with letting dangerous criminals go home because they’re poor and you feel sorry for them. If anything, it’s the opposite.
What Creuzot, Koch and Google are espousing is a system calibrated more closely on the danger and risk an arrested person may pose, not less so. The current system, based on ability to pay, lets the worst gangster walk out of jail first because he can afford to pay his bond while it keeps the harmless vagrant in jail because he can’t.
The ideas the reformers are talking about revolve around so-called “risk-assessment,” which means measuring the danger an arrested person may present if released. Obviously you can’t do that just by looking at people. Well, you shouldn’t. So you need better systems of information sharing, and you also need a better way to provide legal representation so an arrested person can contest a finding of risk.
In the end, all of the ideas Creuzot has presented would increase public safety. They would protect the public immediately by locking up the dangerous defendants and letting the harmless ones go home on their own recognizance. And the reforms would better protect the public in the longer run by not cultivating and growing a class of criminals who might have gone straight had they been given a chance.
None of that, not a word, shows up in the Morning News editorial. Instead, they hype the stories of two recent violent crimes including two murders, both involving accused perpetrators who were free on what the editorial calls “absurdly low bonds.” Then the editorial sort of mumbles its way around the inconvenient fact that the district attorney does not set bonds.
Bonds are set by magistrates, most of whom, for better or worse, stick to a shared menu that matches bond amounts with specific criminal charges.
Under a subhead that reads “DA Under Fire,” the editorial says, “Creuzot’s relationship with both judges and police has become fractious.” That’s arguable. I can go out today and find cops who will bitch about the DA. But I could have done that yesterday, or last year, or 10 years ago.
Meaning no disrespect to the police, the reality is that some quotient of tension always exists between the various branches of law enforcement, because they all have distinct missions and different requirements for meeting those missions.
For the criticisms of Creuzot to have value, they need to be specific. The News offers quotes from a handful of officials who suggest something could be up with something but they’re not sure what. Then the News sums that up as follows:
“The time has come to shed light on who is committing crimes in our city and whether those people are on the streets because of a failure to hold them and prosecute them.
“Reform may well be necessary. But no reform can take root in a city that doesn’t feel safe. And Dallas hasn’t felt safe for too long now.”
Well, wait. What do you mean, “no reform can take root in a city that doesn’t feel safe?” Why not? Isn’t that exactly where reform ought to take root? If everybody feels safe already, why reform?
The line suggesting that criminals run rampant “because of a failure to hold them and prosecute them” is aimed right at Creuzot and at criminal justice reform, and it is worth our while to think about what is really being said there. Criminal justice reform is aimed at making the criminal justice system more effective, not less, by getting it to focus more tightly on the people who pose a real threat to society.
The alternative is to lock people up based not on real risk but on other wholesale externalities. And what are those externalities? What is it about the old way of dispensing pre-adjudication bond like vending machine candy that made the author of the Morning News editorial feel so safe? What is it about the proposed reforms that’s giving the author such a bad case of the vapors?
The News’ editorial is what any real editor would call a write-around. The editorial writes around its own absence of fact or new information in order to get where it wanted to go all along — an attack by innuendo on Creuzot. And that, by the way, is not what embarrasses me.
This is. I am a former daily newspaper editorial page writer myself, although that may not have been my finest hour. I was sort of ordered to do it. But I’ll tell you this much. Where I worked, if we were ordered to do a write-around, we would have done a much better job of it than this.