In 1998 when John Creuzot, now the new Dallas County district attorney, was a Dallas County felony district court judge, he established an experimental program called the Dallas Initiative for Expedited Recovery and Treatment or DIVERT. It sent first-time drug offenders into intensively monitored recovery programs rather than to jail.
One of the first things Creuzot did was invite two different groups at Southern Methodist University to carry out rigorous academic studies measuring the effectiveness of the program. The end of that story is now law enforcement legend.
A study by the SMU Department of Psychology found that DIVERT was reducing recidivism by 68 percent. A study by the SMU Department of Economics found that DIVERT was saving taxpayers $9 in incarceration costs for every $1 spent on recovery.
Since then, DIVERT has been intensively studied and measured by other entities and has served as a model for national criminal justice reform. So Creuzot entered the body of research as both a prominent subject of other people’s studies and also as a respected researcher and teacher in national institutes, conventions and seminars.
Therefore, a week ago when Creuzot announced a slate of reforms aimed at decriminalizing poverty, mental illness, addiction and homelessness, one reasonable heads-up question any journalist or politician might have asked herself or himself was, “Wow, I wonder what body of research Creuzot is basing this stuff on. Because, since it’s Creuzot, we all know there has got to be a body of research, and it must be pretty interesting.”
This is not a shoot-from-the-hip person. Never has been. Never will be.
But the editorial page of The Dallas Morning News jumped in with both boots anyway, painting the new policy as rash and potentially dangerous: “It has the potential to send the wrong message about our tolerance for any crime in this county. We worry about the new policy creating a system that tells petty criminals their bad acts are OK and that demands police officers look the other way.”
Then Texas Gov. Greg Abbott piled on with a tweet that was near-hysterical in tone (not funny hysterical): “Dallas Co. District Attorney stokes crime by refusing to prosecute theft of personal items worth less than $750,” Abbott shrieked. “If someone is hungry they can just steal some food. If cold, steal a coat. Where does it end? It's wealth redistribution by theft.”
The first thing to know is that the new Creuzot initiative on bail, prosecution, sentencing and probation is aimed at better protecting our food and our coats. The goal is for less of our food to get stolen, not more, and for our coats to be even safer on our backs than they are now. These new policies are based on a massive body of national and international research.
The key term in that research is “criminogenic need.” Most of the research makes a distinction between career criminals, on the one hand, and people who break the law because of immediate economic need. The overwhelming consensus is that in the latter case, where people are not yet committed to lives of criminality but suffer from needs based in poverty, mental illness or addiction, addressing those “criminogenic needs” can be a much a more effective way to steer people away from lives of crime than simple punishment.
“You go to the doctor and you have high blood pressure,” Creuzot told me. “So what they’re going to do is address your needs, your risk profile, like diet, exercise, etc. It’s the same concept in criminal justice. Most of the time when you have somebody who’s hungry, putting them in jail is not going to remove the need for food or a job.”
On the other hand, putting people in jail has a strong correlation with increased rates of recidivism. A Harvard study last year found that “even brief stays in jail increase someone’s likelihood of committing crimes in the future.”
As it turns out, every single piece of Creuzot’s multi-part package of new policies and reforms is based on dense research, but there is also a greater irony at work. Many of his reforms, he says, are simply honest reflections of what already goes on in the real world anyway. Take for example his direction to prosecutors to stop prosecuting first-arrest minor marijuana cases.
“The last person I represented in private practice who had a misdemeanor marijuana case in Dallas County,” Creuzot said, “they asked him to buy 12 cans of food and take them to the North Texas Food Bank and bring a receipt back. He did, and within two or three days his case was dismissed. This is system-wide. This is how Dallas County has been dealing with first-time marijuana offenders.
“My thing is, why are we wasting court time for 12 cans of food? It doesn’t make any sense. I’m paying prosecutors $70,000, $80,000 a year to tell somebody to go buy 12 cans of food?”
The initial negative reaction of police to Creuzot’s new policies has been based on a basic misunderstanding. Some law enforcement officers have assumed that Creuzot’s new non-prosecution policy for minor crimes driven by poverty means cops are not supposed to arrest people for things like shoplifting. But Creuzot told me the contrary. He said arrest is often a good thing. The same research supporting non-prosecution in that specific class of offense finds that arrest itself is a more effective deterrent than jail time.
He’s definitely not asking or authorizing the police to act as judge and jury in any cases. The cops are still supposed to do their jobs. But Creuzot is giving his own prosecutors breathing room in which to decide whether a particular theft was the act of a habitual criminal who needs to go to prison or the act of a hungry person who will be so shocked and frightened by the arrest itself that he will never do it again, especially if he gets steered toward help with his poverty-related problems.
“There probably really won’t be that many cases, to be honest with you, that will be in this category,” he said, “so all the doom and gloom is probably not going to be present.” Referring to a story in The Dallas Morning News, Creuzot said, “But the fact is that that lady won’t have to spend all those days and months in jail because she was hungry and stole $100 worth of food.”
Insight into the larger philosophy behind Creuzot’s package of reforms is offered by one piece of it in particular – his stand against prosecuting homelessness. In his official announcement last week, he said: “These prosecutions are an ineffective and inhumane approach to dealing with homelessness or mental illness, and yet since 2015, Dallas County has spent nearly $11 million just to incarcerate those charged with trespass, not including the costs and resources required to arrest and prosecute their cases. To that end, I have instructed my intake prosecutors to dismiss all misdemeanor criminal trespass cases that do not involve a residence or physical intrusion into property.”
By the way, the research behind this new policy shows that of 9,000 criminal trespass offenses prosecuted by Dallas County since 2015, fewer than 12 percent took place at residences or private habitations. The lion’s share were for so-called trespass on public property, especially property owned by DART, the regional transportation agency, which accounted for 25 percent of all cases.
This is the one the cops need to look at closely before they make up their minds on these reforms. Creuzot told me his decision here came after repeated efforts to get the city and other entities to offer their own ideas on dealing with homelessness. “I never heard back,” he said.
What he’s really doing with homelessness is taking the criminal justice system out of the loop. By prosecuting homeless people and sending them to jail, former district attorneys have enabled a shoulder-shrugging irresponsibility in the rest of local government and the community. This is something former Dallas Police Chief David Brown spoke of passionately toward the end of his tenure here, especially after five police officers were murdered downtown.
Brown’s version of it was “give it to the cops.” The community fails or refuses to deal effectively with addiction: Give it to the cops. The community fails to do anything to ameliorate extreme poverty and hunger: Give it to the cops. The list goes on. Creuzot’s version is, “Take them to jail.”
“In America, you can tell from the Morning News and the police response, our default for any problem or issue is to take the person where? To jail. As if that’s some panacea that’s going to solve all the problems, and it doesn’t,” he said.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to the Observer's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Dallas's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
In fact, he sees “take them to jail” as symptomatic of an even larger failure — an unwillingness to deal with fundamental problems threatening society at the core.
“If they had slowed the Titanic down and veered it a little bit one way or the other, they wouldn’t have hit the iceberg. They would have docked in New York and everything would have been fine.
“Unfortunately, we’re driving the Titanic, and it’s full speed ahead to the iceberg. At some point, somebody’s got to say slow down and turn. So far, nobody has been willing to do that.”
Taken in sum and in view of the overwhelming consensus of research supporting it, Creuzot’s new approach to prosecution is aimed at reducing crime, increasing security, saving vast sums of public money and maybe nudging people away from self-destructive behavior and into productive roles in society. Those are not accomplishments we should expect of cops or jailers. We should expect those things of ourselves.