The political flap over Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot’s recently announced policy of reduced prosecution for certain offenses opens a window on a really interesting question in these tumultuous times: What does somebody mean when he says he’s a conservative on crime? Or a liberal?
I admit, one reason I find it interesting is that the Creuzot flap has caused me to realize I really had not been keeping up. I thought I was sort of paying attention. My excuse might be that I had some pretty bad plumbing problems at the house recently that were distracting. But a couple of weeks ago after I hung up from speaking with Creuzot, I thought maybe I should change my name to Rip Van Winkle.
OK, I did know that criminal justice reform is the only area right now where Democrats and Republicans in Washington have been able to find shared ground. I did know that just before last Christmas Congress passed a landmark criminal justice reform law.
But when Creuzot and I spoke, he dropped a casual little side remark into the mix that landed in my own head like an anvil from two stories up. He mentioned that the kind of reforms he is implementing here in Dallas County are things the Koch brothers have been advocating nationally.
The Koch brothers?! The Koch brothers? Surely not Charles and David H. Koch of Koch Industries, the guys who are in favor of global warming and against health? The ones who think tuberculosis is an attitude? No, no, please, do not tell me that Creuzot and the Koch brothers are on the same team. That’s just way too much cognitive dissonance for one poor little human brain to absorb. I might have to drive to New Mexico and check myself into some kind of retreat. (Do they have free ones?)
But, yes. Creuzot said, “The conservatives like the Kochs want to save tax dollars, and the liberals want to save souls, and they meet somewhere in the middle on criminal justice reform.”
After I spoke with Creuzot, I did some catch-up reading and came across a number of things that somehow had evaded my full comprehension, maybe because of the plumbing. The prosecutorial policy changes that Creuzot, a Democrat, is implementing here are all things he promised repeatedly and explicitly that he would do during his campaign last year before defeating the incumbent DA, a Republican, by 60 percent to 40 percent in November. All of these ideas, from reduced prosecution of what he calls economic crimes to nonprosecution of some minor drug offenses, reflect thinking and reforms set in motion in 2007 by former Republican Gov. Rick Perry with help from the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation think tank.
Perry was shown a projection that the “tough on crime” philosophy popular in Texas at the time was about to saddle the state with a half-billion-dollar obligation for more prison beds. The same body of research showed that people who were put in jail for minor offenses like marijuana were much more likely to show up later in state prisons as habitual offenders than people who found their way into recovery programs. And putting somebody in a program was way cheaper than putting him in prison.
No-brainer or the end of civilization? Two weeks ago when Creuzot announced he was going to curtail prosecution of low-level theft for hunger and economic need, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, tweeted: “You and others reveal that STEALING is ok when people want things. ... That's socialism.”
I’m sure we can agree that people use terms like socialism to mean a lot of things, and we get what Abbott means. We don’t have to go into a big political science debate (I hope). He means that staying the hand of punishment, going soft in any way on even the most minor of crimes will convey a bad message, as if society is either condoning the basic act of theft or is just too busy with plumbing problems to care.
The contrary idea, that you don’t let even the smallest infraction slide, was at the heart of the “broken windows” movement in tough-on-crime criminal justice reforms of 30 and 40 years ago. For those of us who lived and battled through the so-called urban pioneer movement back then, broken windows was a principle we saw working right in front of us. You don’t want panhandling on your street, because you don’t want hookers on your street, because you don’t want pimps and drug dealers on your street, because you don’t want to get killed on your street. Many of us were products of the white-bread suburbs and had to learn our street smarts late and in a hurry.
Was the answer really locking up everybody who got crosswise with even the lesser laws? Beginning in the mid-1970s, the number of incarcerated Americans soared to a record 2.3 million souls, surpassing that of all other nations. According to a paper published last year in the Annual Review of Criminology, the incarceration rate of young black males became six times that of white males of the same age. The rate for Hispanics was two and a half times that of whites.
The same paper reviewed multiple studies that found massive overcrowding of prisons but also a breakdown in what prison authorities could even try to do with or for prisoners. The operative term for what prisons did with the humans beings in their custody and care became “warehousing,” and most of the studies found that human beings don’t react well to being warehoused.
The massive warehousing of prisoners, many of whom have entered the system for minor crimes, operates more like a factory designed to crank out even worse criminals in ever greater numbers. What may have looked to us out here as an effective social vacuum cleaner turned into the social plumbing problem from hell.
In that context, we need to revisit Abbott’s use of the term “socialism” and ask what the true conservative and liberal positions are on criminal justice. Was it ever truly conservative or truly liberal to want the government to take ownership of vast numbers of human beings? The government is us, you and me. Do you and I really want to own all those people, to house them, clothe and feed them, guard them, even decide when they can and cannot take showers?
Is it our job to be their moral custodians and mentors? What good does that do? Since most of them are coming back out to live among us again at some point, do we have the ability to turn them into good neighbors against their will? Is there such a thing as a good neighbor against his will?
What did not get much mention in the coverage of Creuzot’s new policies was his experience and strong street-sense dealing with criminality. He’s a former prosecutor under some very tough district attorneys and was a felony district judge for 21 years. This is a man who has looked a lot of very bad people in the eye while sending them to prison.
I don’t have a personal relationship with Creuzot, but he shops at my Whole Foods, and I have tried to button-hole him there a few times on cases where I thought the cops had gone overboard. I have always found him to be extremely unsentimental about criminals. He is inclined to be on the cops’ side unless somebody has some really tough evidence to the contrary.
When we spoke about his policies two weeks ago, Creuzot said plainly he does not intend to go light on habitual criminals. But he does intend to make distinctions.
In what he had to say and — I hope I’m not going to be struck by a liberal lightning bolt when I type these words — even in what I have since read coming from the Koch brothers, I do hear something else that makes sense. It’s two ideas, sides of a coin I guess. One is that human beings are really complicated. The other is that human beings are in charge of themselves.
Think about it. If we could order drunks to stop being drunks, we’d do it, right? That would be the sentence. “This court orders the defendant to stop being a drunk. Right now! Do you understand?”
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I imagine the typical defendant: “Yes, your honor, but I just happen to have this one little old half-pint left in my right coat pocket. Would it be OK if I polished that off while standing here before you?”
And yet many of us have seen in our own families and among dear friends the most amazing stories of recovery. Whether you’re religious or not, those are wonderful stories of redemption, of people born again. But these miracles of rebirth always must come from decisions made deep inside the individuals themselves.
So knowing that human beings possess that power of will and knowing that only they themselves can exercise that power, why would we not give them a chance to do it before we lock them up and own them? Some of them have to be locked up. We all know that. But then they are our pets forever, and I’d like to own as few pet murderers as possible.
Who is the conservative here? Who is the liberal? Are those questions even still worth asking? Given the state of things, maybe we should ask who can get things done.