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Voters put a new face on justice

Incoming officials already fighting fears they are soft on crime

08:33 AM CST on Sunday, November 12, 2006

By BROOKS EGERTON, ROBERT THARP and MICHAEL GRABELL / The Dallas Morning News

Dallas County's freshly elected criminal justice officials promise far-reaching reforms, in the name of fairness and rehabilitation and tackling one of the nation's worst crime rates.

These officials – all of them Democrats, most of them longtime defense attorneys – envision a new age of cooperation among the justice system's many players. They talk about toughening up on repeat offenders, violent criminals and probation violators, while helping low-level lawbreakers turn their lives around.

But one of their first tasks will be to calm fears that their work experience has made them soft on crime and overly skeptical of law enforcement.

Craig Watkins, Dallas County's first black district attorney, has one of the biggest challenges, given the prominence of his position and some particularly strident language that once appeared on his law firm's Web site, which has been taken down.

There, he vowed to defend clients "by any means necessary" and added: "I enjoy manipulating the Government; most times the cases they bring against my clients are weak and unsubstantiated."

Such statements, combined with his campaign-trail criticism of District Attorney Bill Hill's staff, have made some seasoned prosecutors and police officers uneasy.

"Currently it's not about doing the right thing, it's about convictions," Mr. Watkins told The Dallas Morning News in February. "Right now, a lot of prosecutors are just biding their time and waiting to go out in private practices."

To be sure, Mr. Watkins also sounded some law-and-order notes on the campaign trail – saying, for example, that he supported the death penalty and that "being tough on crime is good." He has declined to be interviewed in detail since his election, saying that he will outline his plans Monday.

As he left a closed-door meeting with Mr. Hill on Friday, Mr. Watkins acknowledged that employees in the district attorney's office are concerned and said that he is working to reassure them.

"I can't tell you how much change we're going to do," he said, shortly before cutting off questions and driving away. "The sky is not going to fall."

Racial divide

Mr. Watkins will lead an office that frequently has come under fire for its handling of criminal cases with minority defendants.

A Dallas Bar Association survey earlier this year noted that white and minority lawyers had vastly different views about whether racial bias occurs in the Dallas legal system but agreed that minorities accused of crimes faced the most discrimination.

Investigations by The Dallas Morning News in 2005 and in 1986 found that blacks disproportionately were excluded from Dallas County juries. In 2003, a U.S. Supreme Court opinion in a Dallas County capital murder case remarked on "historical evidence of racial discrimination" by the district attorney's office.

Mr. Watkins' immediate predecessors have denied that prosecutors have discriminated.

Still unknown is how Mr. Watkins' leadership might change the perception of justice in minority communities and whether cases will be handled differently.

Several Watkins allies won criminal judgeships in Tuesday's historic elections, which swept most Republican officeholders from power in Dallas County. These judges-to-be are talking more freely and said their rise to power would level the playing field for defendants, ending an era in which many judges were elected after careers as prosecutors.

Lena Levario, a defense attorney who was a felony court judge in the 1990s and will return to that role in January, said that from her experience it has been difficult to convince the current judges that a police officer is being untruthful.

"Most of the new candidates know what it's like to represent innocent people," she said. "You're going to have judges that are not going to kowtow to what the prosecutors want and what the police want," she said.

Ms. Levario is something of an expert on the need for skepticism: She was one of two private attorneys assigned by the city of Dallas to oversee the investigation of the fake-drug scandal, in which corrupt police officers and informants framed dozens of innocent people. Prosecutors and defense attorneys came under criticism for failing to detect the scam sooner.

"The incoming judges would be more likely to judge a police officer's testimony [like] anybody else's testimony," Ms. Levario said, "instead of giving them the benefit of the doubt."

Senior Cpl. Glenn White, president of the Dallas Police Association, said he hoped that the statements on Mr. Watkins' old law firm site are "not indicative of how he plans to run the Dallas County DA's office. ... We're going to be really fed up if he's looking for loopholes trying to get people off when we as police officers are out there trying to put these people in jail."

Mr. Hill declined to comment on his successor's past statements. After meeting with him Friday, he issued this statement through spokeswoman Rachel Raya: "We're behind Mr. Watkins. We are all working to make Dallas County a safer place, and we are going to do everything we can to make it a smooth transition for him."

Tarrant County District Attorney Tim Curry, the state's longest-serving DA, said people shouldn't worry that Mr. Watkins has no felony prosecution experience. Mr. Curry said he himself had no such experience when he was first elected in 1972.

"Everybody ought to give him a chance to see what he can do," he said. "I don't think now's the time to criticize him. If anything, now's the time to help him."

Toby Shook, the veteran member of Mr. Hill's staff whom Mr. Watkins defeated, said he is still considering his plans but did not rule out continuing to work as a prosecutor.

"I keep all my options open," he said. "I love this job. I wouldn't have stayed here 23 years if I hadn't."

In a campaign flier, Mr. Shook took aim at some of the statements on Mr. Watkins' law firm site and noted that his opponent had been nearly $100,000 delinquent on income taxes.

Much in common

But Mr. Shook told The News that when they met at campaign forums, he and Mr. Watkins found that they had much in common. They both vowed to be tough on repeat and violent criminals while working to address the factors that cause crime.

Indeed, some of the reforms touted by the new criminal justice officials were in the wind before Tuesday, driven more by necessity than ideology: Jails and prisons are full. Probationers are vanishing. And budgets are busting.

"It's $1 million a month every time we add a floor" of overflow jail space, said veteran County Commissioner John Wiley Price. "We can't survive and continue to do that kind of lockup. We've got to be smarter and more creative in terms of how we manage this whole criminal docket."

Mr. Price, long one of the county's few Democratic officials and a close adviser to Mr. Watkins, said one piece of the management puzzle fell into place in the latter days of Mr. Hill's administration: faster case intake.

The time between arrest and indictment used to average about 30 days – often longer in drug cases to allow for chemical tests. The many people who couldn't afford bail sat in jail.

Now the lag time is down to about 10 days.

Cost to taxpayers

Mr. Price and some incoming criminal judges want to build on that momentum by, among other things, releasing poor people accused of nonviolent crimes with little or no cash bail. Pretrial jailing of this population "is costing taxpayers millions," said Ms. Levario, the judge-elect.

Mr. Hill's office also has taken steps in recent months to improve intake quality. Two new high-level positions focus on robbery and sexual assault cases, making sure police investigations are solid enough to present to a grand jury. A similar position that focuses on homicide investigations was created last year.

Another strategy Mr. Price expects to see expanded is requiring offenders to do community service work. Some current misdemeanor judges, he said, have resisted the program despite its double benefit: Offenders don't tie up jail beds, and they can handle tasks that the county otherwise would have to contract out.

"Instead of the citizens of Dallas County paying for someone to have three hots and a cot behind bars, this individual can still be a functioning member of society and paying their own way," probation officer Chris Jones said.

Mr. Jones is a member of PO's for Public Safety, which campaigned for some of the Democratic criminal court candidates and urged them to strengthen the probation system. A study commissioned by the judges last year found that they had lost track of thousands of probationers and presided over a fragmented system with crushing caseloads.

During the campaign, most of the new criminal court judges agreed to a reform plan. It calls for better tracking and expanded addiction treatment programs.

"A lot of people equate rehabilitation to wimpy liberal stuff, but if it reduces crime, we need to use it," said Ms. Levario. She and others praised the work that two sitting Republican judges, John Creuzot and Robert Francis, have done for the DIVERT courts, the Dallas Initiative for Diversion and Expedited Rehabilitation and Treatment.

A recent study of 70 drug offenders in Judge Creuzot's drug-court program found that 28 percent absconded or had their probation revoked within two years. Among drug offenders not participating in the program, the figure was 70 percent.

Judge Creuzot said some of his fellow GOP jurists had been unenthusiastic about the program. Now, he said, he hopes to see the model expand to address the problem of repeat drunken-driver probationers.

"We're going to be a lot more controlling on individuals who have felony DWI cases," Judge Creuzot said.

Dallas Police Chief David Kunkle is a fan of the approach. "For most people, it's easier to do jail time," he said. This is an effort "to keep them from that revolving door."

Rick Magnis, a longtime public defender elected to a felony court judgeship, said judges are going to have to take more direct control of probationers of all sorts. At present, many judges don't sign arrest warrants until an offender has missed three straight meetings with a probation officer.

"You need to set them up to succeed," Mr. Magnis said, "and you can't wait three months for that."

E-mail begerton@dallasnews.com , rtharp@dallasnews.com and mgrabell@dallasnews.com

Age: 38

Professional background: Worked as a municipal prosecutor and public defender before starting a private law practice. He also owns a real estate title company and previously owned a bail bond company.

Party: Democrat

Previous political experience: Ran unsuccessfully for district attorney in 2002.

Hometown: Graduate of Carter High School in Dallas. Now lives in DeSoto.

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