It's always a good idea 'round this time of the year to make a list of accomplishments, if only to figure out what you need to get done in the coming year. So happens, of course, that Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins needs to get re-elected in 2010, and, as our friend Scott Henson noted only yesterday:
Among sitting District Attorneys, Dallas' Craig Watkins has a big bullseye on his back. He's definitely the favorite going into the race, but Watkins has taken a lot of hits recently and if the GOP can't knock off the rookie DA in 2010, they're likely stuck with him or some other Democrat for quite a long time. That tells me the Dallas GOP will likely throw the kitchen sink at him hoping to stem the recent tide of Democratic victories in that county. It's what I'd do in their shoes.
With that in mind, after the jump you'll find a very lengthy missive titled "End of the Year Overview from District Attorney Craig Watkins," which was just sent out by spokesperson Jamille Bradfield.
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END OF YEAR OVERVIEW FROM DISTRICT ATTORNEY CRAIG WATKINS
I hope you will find this to be an informative overview of our progress and accomplishments during the past three years I have had the opportunity to serve you as the District Attorney (DA) for Dallas County. The last 36 months have been quite an experience for me personally and professionally. As I rode in on a wave of absolute progress and change, many of you were excited with the endless possibilities of a fresh, new, smart approach to the criminal justice system. Some of you were somewhat skeptical of the unknown. I hope that those of you who were beaming with excitement are satisfied with the progress made, and for those of you who were skeptical, I trust that your hesitation has given way to acceptance and understanding.
As we began this journey I must admit that I did not foresee all of the challenges, opportunities and obstacles that were yet to be faced. Fortunately, I had and have at my disposal a litany of individuals who embody the necessary character, strength and knowledge to navigate the situations in which we were faced and are facing. I would be more than arrogant to even give you the impression that the success, progress and change we have accomplished over the last three years, was all at my hands and my hands alone. Without my staff's unwavering support, we would not have been able to accomplish so much in so little time.
Upon entering office we initially intended to evaluate each section of the District Attorney's Office within a fairly short amount of time. Unfortunately, we uncovered situations that gave way to extending our initial assessment to an unlimited time frame. It seems that this first term has been committed to cleaning up a very large mess that took years to create. Although we have done much, there is much more to do. However, this writing is intended to focus on what we have done.
Without a doubt the Conviction Integrity Unit may be recorded in history as one of the most innovative approaches to dispensing justice. I am proud to say that this program has served the citizens of Dallas County and the overall criminal justice system very well. As a result of our proactive approach to exploring legitimate claims of innocence, we have restored credibility to the criminal justice system and made it much easier for our office to gain the well deserved convictions of the truly guilty. To date we have exonerated 22 men for crimes they did not commit. In the process, we were also able to identify in several cases, the actual perpetrators who committed the crime.
This one simple program alone has lead us to take our case of "smart justice" to Austin during the 2009 legislative session. We were successful in bringing a bill which allows us, through the State of Texas, to make a notation in actual perpetrators files' where there is a DNA profile match in sexual assault cases, even though the constitution limits our ability to pursue a successful prosecution. Additionally, we have brought to the national and state level changes that need to be implemented in the criminal justice process. This will give us the ability to adequately prosecute individuals that choose to commit the most violent of crimes.
One of these changes was persuading police departments throughout Dallas County to implement the double-blind system of identifying offenders through photo lineups.
Naturally, when we experienced one person after the other walking free for crimes they did not commit, we decided to take a look at all pending convictions from Dallas County in which an individual was on death row. This resulted in creating the Death Row Review Program. This program looked at all pending cases from Dallas County where an individual is currently facing execution. We reviewed each and every one of the cases to ensure that the convicted individual committed the crime.
Recently, as a result of the work we have performed as it relates to DNA-based exonerations, we were awarded a grant which gives us the necessary resources to take DNA samples from car thieves and burglars. This gives us the tools to not only locate offenders that commit these crimes but also opens the door to investigate other criminal enterprises that these offenders commit. The FEAR (Forensic Evidence Auto Recovery) program give us the necessary tools that, in the future, will reduce car thefts, burglaries and many other criminal enterprises, which as a natural byproduct, cause criminal activity in other areas.
Another new initiative we established is our Absconder Unit. We noticed early on that there were several individuals who had been granted probation that failed to abide by their conditions. In conjunction with the Dallas County Probation Department, we implemented the Probation Absconder Unit. This specialized unit actively looks for and locates the high-level probation absconders and returns them to custody before they can commit more crimes. To date, we have arrested more than 100 absconders.
The "smart on crime" philosophical model has also allowed us to request and receive funding for a 24-hour intake process. This program afforded us the opportunity to have a prosecutor at virtually every level of the criminal justice process. It gave way to having better cases presented to the grand jury and also identified those cases that did not need to be in the system. Unfortunately, this program became a casualty of budget cuts. We, however, are still advocating for its return.
The Gang Unit, which we implemented fairly quickly and has had a vast impact on criminal activity in Dallas County, is one in which I am truly proud of. The Gang Unit works in conjunction with the federal authorities. Its purpose is not only to identify gang activity and its members, but its overall goal is also to prevent gang activity and the recruitment of members. This program has been a rousing success within communities faced with the negative impact of gang activity.
Our "smart on crime" approach has given way to opening up our minds to the reality that criminal activity has evolved from a common thug robbing you on the street to an educated thug stealing your identity while sitting at a desk with a laptop. We were successful in securing funding for an elder abuse prosecutor that not only prosecutes physical abuse of the elderly but also the financial crimes that these assailants commit. We did not stop there; the reality is that mortgage fraud is a major problem in Dallas. Property values and our overall security as responsible homeowners have been compromised. Therefore, we sought and gained funding for a mortgage fraud prosecutor.
Another serious issue we have been faced with is the ongoing problem of individuals driving while under the influence of alcohol. Drunk drivers are a major threat to the safety of our loved ones on the road. A new tool was introduced in 2007 which gives police officers the ability to obtain a warrant and take the blood or breath of a potential offender. However, because of a quirk in the law we could not obtain these warrants unless we allowed magistrates to sign warrants. In the 2009 legislative session we were successful in bringing legislation that changed the law allowing magistrate judges to sign blood warrants. We foresee a severe reduction in DWI drivers as a result of this new law.
As it relates to other non-violent crimes, it's been evident that low-level offenders continue to commit crimes with minor consequences. As a result we instituted the Impact Offender program. This program is designed to identify those who continue to commit crimes with relatively little exposure to criminal sanctions. In conjunction with the local police departments, we identify these offenders, and use tools provided to us by the state which allows for these offenses to be enhanced. By fast-tracking these individuals' cases through the court system and seeking the maximum punishment allowed, we are able to get them off of our streets and into the penitentiary as quickly as possible.
Finally, in our effort to balance the criminal justice system and institute smart justice, we implemented a program which also allowed for first-time, low-level offenders the opportunity to be brought to justice and held accountable without having a conviction. The Memo Agreement has been a tremendous success in decreasing the number of individuals with criminal records, the number of prosecutions we have to pursue and providing a second chance for youthful indiscretions.
These are just the major highlights of improvements we have made and although we have accomplished several goals, we have much more work to do to improve the overall criminal justice system in Dallas County. However, I hope you are pleased with the work we have done thus far and I look forward to another year of progress and positive change at the DA's Office in 2010.
Your District Attorney,