A Beacon of Light in the Dark World of Criminal (In)Justice
I have listed below five statements about criminal justice policy. Please tell me if you think they are being made by:
(a) a liberal college student majoring in criminal justice
(b) a Green Party politician in Vermont
(c) a head of a public defender organization
(d) a community activist from the inner-city
(e) the District Attorney of Dallas, Texas
"The 'drug epidemic' locked people up for a long time for minor offenses for drug cases and led to recidivism and repeat offenders. Just building prisons is not going to reduce crime and not make the citizens any safer."
"If you punish someone without rehabilitation then you really just make the situation worse. You can't just punish --- you have to educate people and give them a marketable skill so that people can survive in a post-jail life."
"It's in the best interest for all of us as a society to rehabilitate ex-criminals, not just punish them."
"We spend roughly $34 a day to imprison an inmate, and only $8 a day to educate our children."
"We need a more humanistic approach to crime and punishment. The vast majority of the people in the criminal justice system "can be saved" through a civilized criminal justice system."
If for any of these statements you guessed the liberal organizer, the progressive politician, the public defender, or the inner-city activist, you were wrong. Try the District Attorney of Dallas, Texas.
At the end of last month, Dallas DA Craig Watkins spoke about preventing wrongful convictions and exonerating the innocent at DMI's Market Place of Ideas. Watkins was straightforward about problems in our criminal justice system, from its failed and counterproductive war on drugs to its systemic failures glaringly highlighted by the many convictions of innocent people.
Not only does Dallas need a DA like Watkins --- after all, Dallas County alone has had 13 wrongful convictions proven by post-conviction DNA testing --- but cities all across America need one like him as well. Every county needs a DA who is going to try to make the system more fair; who cares more about uplifting and protecting the community with sensible, longer-term, more humanistic approaches to criminal justice that aim first to rehabilitate rather than punish; who opened up many of his office's files to defense attorneys to encourage competent, effective, and prepared counsel for poor people; who wants to test earlier convictions for possible DNA evidence to verify whether the right person is behind bars; who is interested in improving eyewitness identification procedures so that they comport with three decades of social science research and minimize the risks to innocent suspects created by commonplace, outdated procedures; and one who realizes that throwing tons of people in jail for nonviolent drug crimes is a waste of both money and, more importantly, of people's lives.
Many counties in New York could use a DA like Watkins, since New York State has had the third most exonerations through DNA testing in the country, and yet, as I wrote about recently, has barely lifted a finger to address the problem.
On the subject of criminal justice, it isn't often that New York, or many other states, can learn much from Texas. But we would be wise to learn a lesson today from Craig Watkins. He is proof that reform can come not only from unpredictable places, but from unanticipated factions as well, and he puts many of our leaders in "progressive" jurisdictions to shame.