A column in the Fort Worth Star Telegram this week by Richard Gonzales quotes extensively from Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins speaking at a Juneteenth event ("Heresy, healing, courts and crime," June 20). Wrote Gonzales:
I hope any Democrat considering running for District Attorney against Chuck Rosenthal in Houston next year is listening carefully to Mr. Watkins - he's already developed your campaign message.
A new civil rights movement began in Dallas County with the November 2006 election of Watkins as the first African-American district attorney there. As a defense attorney, he had seen firsthand the inequities of the criminal justice system.
"African-American males between 18 and 25 are more likely to be in prison, probation or parole than in college," he said. "That doesn't say that African-American men are bad people. I believe that there is something wrong with the system."
National Public Radio reported in February that Watkins had opened the Dallas DA files from the last 30 years to the Innocence Project, which seeks to determine whether DNA tests may find wrongful convictions.
Watkins explained that the era of "get tough on crime" had little impact on Dallas County's crime rate. He said the county has the same murder rate that it had in 1960. All the Texas prisons built in the 1990s did little to reduce that rate.
He argues that Texas is behind in progressive criminal justice reform, and he plans to change that in Dallas. His "radical" idea is one that he has seen work in the Bronx, Baltimore, San Francisco and Atlanta.
Since 1989, the African-American district attorney in the Bronx, Robert T. Johnson, has implemented programs that seek to rehabilitate drug offenders. One result has been a 77 percent reduction in homicides, says the Bronx DA's office: from 653 in 1990 to 153 in 2006.
To applause and laughter from the audience at last week's Juneteenth celebration, Watkins said that he's embarrassed by the stereotypical image of Texas district attorneys as prosecutors in cowboy boots walking around with a dip of snuff in their mouths, telling folks to get in line.
Simply building prisons and locking up people without addressing the root causes of crime are not the current "industry standards." Those include implementing drug rehabilitation programs, reaching out to the community, developing community programs as alternatives to incarceration and opening files to the Innocence Project.
"Putting people in jail doesn't work," Watkins said.
Watkins said we go through life phases in which our focus changes. When we're young, we think mainly about ourselves. As we mature, we realize that it's more important to think about the people coming after us and about laying foundations for others to live better lives.
"I want to leave a legacy that will improve the criminal justice system not only in Dallas County but throughout this state and country," he said.
Looking back at the heretical ideas of Martin Luther King Jr., people now realize that he was truly a healer. Some may consider Watkins a heretic today, but he hopes that history will prove him to be a healer of an ailing criminal justice system.