Tomorrow on Election Day, Dallas County voters will elect the most powerful official in the local criminal justice system, a position they may not know anything about: The district attorney.
For those that are not familiar with the scope of the DA's role, the county district attorney makes prosecutorial decisions that shift our community for better or worse. They seek justice in criminal cases, work to prevent crime, and serve as a leader in the communities he or she represents. The DA does these things by deciding whether someone will be charged with a crime, what types of crimes to prosecute, and who gets a second chance.
I should know why the district attorney’s platform is so important. At the age of 19, I was wrongfully convicted of crimes I did not commit. A district attorney decided my fate when I was charged and decided my fate when I was finally exonerated. My life as I had known it ceased to exist as I spent 15 years in Texas state prisons. I felt kidnapped by the system that took my identity and my authority as a human being.
The years that I spent wrongfully incarcerated are gone now, but if my experience can ignite progressive criminal justice reform, then I must consider the years I lost as profitable. I have chosen to live my life in pursuit of hope through the organization I founded, Miles of Freedom. This organization is guided by the principle that the criminal justice system should not solely be about convictions and sentencing, but should also be committed to opportunity for individuals to regain their dignity and rebuild their lives post-incarceration.
The district attorney’s office and the DA candidates up for election should uphold this guiding principle as well. In turn, voters must hold the DA accountable to their duty to “...see that justice is done by protecting the innocent….” as the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office mission statement mandates.
In considering incumbent Faith Johnson and challenger John Creuzot as Dallas’s next DA, voters should further consider their records and experience through a Smart Justice lens. The campaign for Smart Justice is a multiyear effort by the ACLU of Texas to reduce mass incarceration, seek justice not just convictions, address racial bias in the criminal justice system, create transparency in policy and decision making, and hold police and prosecutors accountable for misconduct.
Dallas County residents deserve a district attorney that believes in these principles. The status quo of mass incarceration and bias against communities of color is killing us. The health of our community is at stake with this DA election - and all future elections for that matter. This is why voters must be critical and carefully consider each candidate’s qualifications. As an ACLU of Texas advisory board member, I believe in the principles outlined in the Smart Justice campaign as well, though neither I nor the ACLU of Texas endorse either of the Dallas district attorney candidates.
My hope is that voters have the chance to learn, become engaged, and understand their role in holding the district attorney accountable to their platform. I also hope that all voters understand that it is their civic duty to cast their ballots tomorrow on Election Day.
Because the district attorney may have prosecutorial power, but we the people have the communal power to elect our next district attorney.