Reform prosecutors win 2 big-city primaries in Texas

Facade of courthouse with columns. CREDIT: Getty Images

Two of the largest cities in Texas will likely see a very different kind of justice dispensed starting in 2019 after a pair of reform-minded candidates won primaries in the San Antonio and Dallas District Attorneys elections on Tuesday.

San Antonio area voters decided they’d rather not retain Nico LaHood, the current District Attorney for Bexar County. LaHood conceded early to Joe Gonzales, a longtime defense attorney who has promised to end cash bail for all but the most serious crimes and wants to send more non-violent offenders to rehab instead of prison.

The primary there was nasty, with LaHood cutting a TV ad likening his opponent to Harvey Weinstein and Larry Nassar. In candidate forums, the incumbent had been simultaneously defensive about his own track record on pretrial diversion for drug cases and dismissive of calls for further reform. Voters sent him home.

The Dallas County prosecutor’s race lacked fireworks by comparison, but still yielded a Democratic nominee dedicated bringing less reactionary thinking into law enforcement work. But then, that was going to be true either way — the two-person race centered on how the prosecutor’s office should change, not whether or not it should at all. Longtime judge John Creuzot edged out Elizabeth Frizell, a fellow veteran of the bench who cut a more fiery figure and issued more ambitious campaign pledges but lacked Creuzot’s endorsements within the city’s business community and party establishment.

Frizell had said she would refuse to prosecute any low-level marijuana possession offenses, while Creuzot said he couldn’t “go that far.” She also called for eliminating the constitutionally questionable practice of civil asset forfeiture, where officers seize cash or property from people they suspect of crimes without ever charging them. Creuzot favors changes to the system but not its eradication.

The narrowness of the differences between Frizell and Creuzot is a sort of micro-demonstration of how far the country has come in recent years on the politics of law enforcement. Even half a decade ago, it would have been almost unimaginable for a D.A.’s office candidacy to smile toward pot smokers. Here, the debate wasn’t over whether or not to ease up on old War on Drugs thinking, but of how far in that direction it might make sense to go.

Frizell drew the grassroots support of the Texas Organizing Project (TOP), whose deputy director Brianna Brown pledged the group will stay intimately involved as Creuzot turns his attention to incumbent District Attorney Faith Johnson. TOP weren’t the only group engaged in the race. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) put canvassers in the Dallas County streets to call voters’ attention to the race too — another indication of the way national justice reform organizations have retooled their work toward state and local fights in the Trump era.

Frizell’s defeat to a somewhat more moderate reformer might sound like a setback for a loose national movement that’s already kicked a much-reviled prosecutor out of office in Chicago and replaced Philadelphia’s top prosecutor with a hardline reformer who spent his entire career on the other side of the courtroom. But that’s the wrong way to look at Texas’ primary day results, ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice director Udi Ofer said in an email.

“Criminal justice reform and ending mass incarceration became the top agenda items in the Democratic primary. The lock ’em up rhetoric was replaced with candidates trying to outdo each on who’s better on ending mass incarceration,” he said. “And district attorneys across the nation are on notice that voters care deeply about criminal justice reform.”

Criminal justice policy experts have been pointing to local prosecutors’ offices as a key venue for reforming an abusive, exploitative, and too-often-inaccurate system for a long time. Years before federal government power fell into the hands of a brashly racist tough-guy and a party that’s barely willing to acknowledge that mass incarceration is even a problem — while reform organizers were focused on allies in the White House and atop the Justice Department — academics and writers had identified prosecutors as the basic building block of the injustices in question.

From the moment Donald Trump won the White House, though, it was obvious that reform causes would get no further traction in Washington. The resulting shift in focus, energy, and money toward state and local policymaking is still in its adolescence nearly 18 months later. But on Tuesday in Texas, primary voters showed there is still much to be won for campaigners who have had to adjust from the most dramatic change of ideological course in the modern history of the United States federal government.