Dallas County’s Community Prosecution Unit (CPU) reaches out to local schools and neighborhood leaders to change citizens’ negative perceptions of law enforcement and prevent future crime.
As assistant district attorneys, our jobs begin once a crime has already occurred. With every prosecution we are trying to redress a wrong—often a violent one—perpetrated by one of our citizens.
If you are anything like me, you love this job because you get tremendous satisfaction out of doing justice. We see the results of our hard work in many places: a crime victim’s teary gratitude at the end of a trial; a child victim’s hug once you’ve told her that her abuser will never touch her again because he was just sentenced to 50 years in prison; the restored faith of a victim with a colorful past who was treated fairly and justly by the criminal justice system. It is those moments of victory that spur many of us to keep announcing, “State’s ready.”
Despite all the sweet victories, I had always wished I could do more. For in every courtroom victory, I wonder how much better it would have been for the victim and the defendant if the defendant’s life had changed course before he committed the crime. Was there anything I could do to help that happen? In September 2012 just such an opportunity presented itself when our Criminal District Attorney, Craig Watkins, asked me to implement his vision for a Community Prosecution Unit (CPU).
What is community prosecution?
One of the major problems we face as prosecutors is people’s distrust of law enforcement. Too many times people are hesitant to come forward when they’ve witnessed a crime or when they themselves are victimized because they don’t trust police. This distrust exists for a multitude of reasons: being raised with corrupt law enforcement in their countries of origin, inadequacy of police response in their neighborhood, or feeling that people are profiled because of their race. As a trial court prosecutor for 10 years, I had way too many cases in which I knew there were 25 witnesses to a crime but only one came forward. Many children never want to become police officers because of the negative reputation peace officers have in their circles.
Because community prosecution is defined as developing programs that answer the needs of the community, at the outset we wanted to focus on various crime prevention strategies with three targeted approaches: 1) being ambassadors between the community and the DA’s office, 2) creating pretrial diversion programs, and 3) educating our next generation. These three areas allowed us to gain valuable research, forge community partnerships, create strategic plans, and make a difference with immediate “boots on the ground.”
Our community prosecution unit was funded for a chief (me), four prosecutors assigned to different regions of the county, and one investigator. Since then, we have added a program manager and community relations manager to fill our growing needs.
to the community
Our first mission was to become the cheapest six-person PR campaign that ever existed. We began attending every crime watch and town hall meeting and meeting with every elected official to introduce ourselves. Far too many people have no idea what prosecutors do or the challenges we face, and we must educate them. (We also hoped this PR campaign might prompt more citizens to answer summons to jury duty; the response rate in Dallas County is dismal.) We attended city development meetings for troubled neighborhoods and planning meetings to offer suggestions on drug-free zone enhancements, and we discussed what enhanced punishment ranges could mean for repeat offenders. We encouraged people to attend our office’s Citizen Prosecutor Academy, which walks students through the criminal justice process from beginning to end (read an article about it at www.tdcaa.com/journal/reaching-out-local-citizens, which was published in the January–February 2013 issue of this journal). Through numerous presentations we have educated the community on crime prevention strategies, criminal law, punishment ranges for violations, and help for victims of crime. We created a brochure that discusses animal cruelty laws, penalty ranges for violations, and the reporting process. This brochure was published in both English and Spanish because several Latin American countries do not have analogous animal cruelty laws, and some behaviors that are violations in Texas are actually socially acceptable in some Dallas residents’ countries of origin. We have worked with community organizations to educate the elderly population on scams that target the aging population and resources they can turn to for help. We have also educated parents on the newly enacted laws against cyber-bullying and how to keep their children safe from online predators and bullies. And we have helped to start a county-wide gang task force so that intelligence can be shared by school districts and independent cities. Our goal was to send a message that the Dallas County Criminal District Attorney’s Office and the justice system are intended to work for everyone, while also improving the quality of law enforcement and increasing public safety.
Because the attorneys in the CPU don’t have dockets, we are able to be out in the community educating people. (It would be great if every prosecutor could do this type of everyday outreach, but somebody has to try cases!) It didn’t take long for us to realize that this work is a full-time job, and it is just one part of what we do. Through our presence we have served as liaisons between our office and the community at large and various public, private, and law enforcement agencies. Our attendance and participation at these meetings has helped to streamline communications for more efficient and effective prosecutions and to build partnerships and foster better relationships within the county criminal justice system.
The second area we focused on was to create a means to divert low-level offenders who entered the criminal justice system because of a momentary lapse in judgment or giving in to peer pressure so that they would not be saddled with a criminal history the rest of their lives. Our felony diversion program, A Second Chance Initiative, is meant for the exceptional defendant who deserves but doesn’t meet the qualifications for an existing county diversion program but whom, we believe, can be saved.
One example is a defendant who would otherwise qualify for the statutory drug court in every way, except that she is a full-time college student in another city or has to travel several weeks of the year for her job. This inability to stay within five miles of Dallas County several days of the week disqualifies an otherwise worthy candidate. In response, we have partnered with treatment providers outside of Dallas to overcome these barriers so that deserving individuals have the same opportunity to earn a clean record upon successful completion of the diversion program.
A second example involved a bullying incident by two high school students that escalated into a felony theft charge. When we began this program, an absolute condition was that complainants had to agree to the diversion. Thus far the complainants have been extremely happy to know that there is such an option. Many felt guilty about involving the police and were comforted by this option as long as they were made whole and the perpetrator suffered some consequence. In this bullying case, one of the perpetrators’ conditions included helping the CPU explain the ramifications and consequences they suffered as a result of their bad judgment to other middle school and high school students. (Because the defense attorneys could not attend the talk, we had it in writing that the CPU could communicate with their clients about the incident on the day of the presentation and regarding scheduling without defense counsel present.)
On presentation day I was working with John and Jackie (whose names have been changed to protect their identities) before the presentation. I told them to speak from the heart and talk about how their crimes and the consequences have affected them. Jackie grew up in a supportive, loving environment. As she described sitting in a jail cell and being expelled from school, she was naturally embarrassed. John, on the other hand, was not as fortunate. Unlike Jackie, jail was the least of his problems. He was a graduating senior with a full scholarship to a four-year college, and that scholarship was his way out of an impoverished, unstable life. When he was charged with a felony, he lost his scholarship, and that upward trajectory for his life was over—all because of two girls fighting over a guy in a schoolyard.
As the tears began to fall down his face and he fell to the chair, I realized this was one of those moments that nothing could prepare me for. There was never anything that John wished he could take back more than those few minutes in that schoolyard that cost him so much. He had lived on his own and had been putting himself through community college and working an hourly job with no one’s help—he could have taken a much easier path and just given up, but he was determined to make something of himself and not let this one mistake define him. We practiced his speech a few times and then it was show time—and he hit it out of the park. Several parents of the kids attending thanked the CPU, John, and Jackie for sharing their stories. John couldn’t turn back the clock and change what he did that day in the schoolyard, but perhaps he changed the direction of others’ lives that day.
When it was done I told him that he had done a great job. Speaking to those students was the last condition of his dismissal and he said, “Thank you, Ms. Rachael, but I am sad.” I asked him why, thinking he should be elated he was finally done. “Because I won’t see you anymore,” he answered. John saying that he was sad that he wouldn’t see his prosecutor anymore tells me that his second chance was just. It was certainly what I would call one of the justice moments, a community justice moment.
Educating the next
The third prong of our strategy is to work with children. We wanted to change their negative views of law enforcement and redirect the “school-to-prison pipeline” that exists throughout our communities. This strategy requires a multi-faceted approach to educate, innovate, and expose. We have to educate kids about the law and the consequences of violating it; to be effective we have to use innovative programs; and throughout all our efforts we are constantly thinking of ways to expose these kids to new opportunities that they might not otherwise know about. We are continually showing them the positive side of law enforcement.
At the conclusion of its first year, the CPU had given more than 300 presentations, reaching almost 10,000 of our county’s youngest residents. These presentations cover a wide variety of topics: animal cruelty laws, drug and alcohol abuse, bullying and cyber-bullying, truancy, “consensual” statutory rape, teen dating violence, and illegal use of social media. Children are often not aware that being a spectator at a cock-fight or dog-fight is illegal or that teen dating violence actually exists until it’s too late or it happens to them. It is hard for teenagers to recognize that their actions have consequences. We hope that these presentations will not only educate them on the laws but also on the life-long consequences of violating a law.
Though parents, teachers, and school personnel could also present some of the same information, we are more effective for many reasons. First, as lawyers and law enforcement officers, we can give an accurate interpretation of the law. Second, we use real-life cases as examples to bring the point home to the audience. Many kids think these things will never happen to them, but when we highlight cases that mirror the age and situation of those in our audience, we make it more real.
Our presentations have also included participating in a number of career days across the county. During those presentations we discuss what our office does and what prosecutors do, and we include a crime-prevention component such as discussing animal cruelty laws or drug addiction. Though career day presentations seem like such a small thing, to many of these kids it is the only exposure they get to a productive career path. When CPU prosecutors ask many of the junior high boys in our programs, “What do you want to do when you grow up?,” their answers are often a rapper, professional ball player, or drug dealer. We have found that these presentations are extremely helpful in elementary schools to start indoctrinating children to respect law enforcement and follow the law. We tell them that laws are just rules outside school and that they exist to keep everyone safe; we also explain the roles of police and prosecutors. (The elementary kids always love playing with our badges.) There are so many career days that it is impossible for regular trial prosecutors to attend them; only through the fully staffed CPU are we able to attend these events and give our presentations.
The CPU has developed four programs for children (discussed below) that have two goals: First, we seek to help those kids headed down a negative path and who will possibly be exposed to drug abuse and criminal activity find a new path to a successful, productive citizenship. Second, we want to give children positive exposure to law enforcement. Many of these kids have negative opinions about anyone associated with law enforcement and the criminal justice system. Such a belief has a much larger impact upon their minds than one might think. For example, these kids will not be as likely to report crimes; they will be less likely to come forward as witnesses to a crime; and of course, they may be more likely to commit crimes themselves. Each of these negative influences contributes to our crime rate and makes it less likely that criminals are held accountable for their actions.
Junior Prosecutor Academy (JPA)
The JPA was founded in the belief that two things will help children stay out of trouble: career goals and respect for the law. The Junior Prosecutor Academy’s mission is to expose participants to the vast array of careers in the criminal justice field. Each academy provides age-appropriate material and interactive presentations. The crime scene investigation class covers what a crime scene detective does, and students get to actually work with the tools. We discuss the various jobs associated with crime scenes including police, forensic biologists, and firearms examiners. Students then learn how to introduce crime scene evidence in the courtroom by playing lawyer, witness, and judge. They hear about the dangers of alcohol and drug use, especially as it relates to driving while intoxicated. Students use intoxication goggles to do field sobriety tests and very quickly see how their perception and senses would be affected by alcohol and drug use.
Given the increase in school-related violence and its association with mental illness, we added a presentation from our office’s mental health prosecutor, Cindy Stormer. Her presentation minimizes the negative stigma associated with mental illness and encourages participants to be supportive and to help those who are mentally ill.
High school students hear a presentation on a capital murder case in which the victim gave a total stranger a ride and how he sexually assaulted her, brutally beat her to death, and set her body on fire. Not only does this case demonstrate the dedication of the police and prosecutors involved on behalf of the victim but it also reminds students, who are now of driving age, why we teach them never to give rides to strangers. We also have a DA investigator present on the dangers of gang membership and gang prosecutions. To provide a balanced approach, we ask an exoneree to explain to the students his case and subsequent exoneration, and he spends some time teaching them about lessons he has learned the hard way. Finally, we conclude each academy with a graduation ceremony to validate their participation and increase future participation.
The power of a program such as this to change lives can be seen in Steve’s story (his name has been changed for anonymity). While at one of the schools signing kids up for the program, we saw Steve with a roll of $20 bills, something you wouldn’t expect for a junior high student. Based on that and some other information, we were pretty sure that Steve was running drugs for someone. Steve decided to participate in JPA. Surprisingly, he came to every class. During the academy we monitored his school participation and were informed that on his standardized test one of the questions asked him to write about something positive in his life. Steve wrote about the Junior Prosecutor Academy and the impact it had upon him. At graduation he said he wanted to be a prosecutor.
Mock Trial Academy
This program was developed for different ages of children to experience various careers within the criminal justice system through a mock trial. Last year we hosted a Junior Prosecutor Academy and incorporated a mock trial, but when we saw how much the students loved the mock trial, we decided to just do a Mock Trial Academy this summer. Though several high schools have mock trials already, ours gives students the experience without having to try out for the team while also exposing them to positive interaction with law enforcement. The trial was held on the final day of the academy, and students were able to invite guests to watch. Afterward we celebrated with cake and certificates.
Our elementary school mock trial has been a huge success. We provide a script of an entire trial where Curly Pig is charged with the attempted murder of B.B. Wolf. This allows for kids to split up the roles of lawyers and witnesses. Rather than creating the questions for witnesses from scratch, they get to spend time practicing the script and focusing on their performance. Again, it is about exposing children to the positive side of law enforcement and potential legal careers. Even if they choose not to become a lawyer, at least we have given them some confidence to stand and speak in public. Having more self-confidence certainly can reduce the likelihood of them being victims of crime and caving to peer pressure.
Reading is Lawesome
This program was developed after a meeting with the principal at Gabe P. Allen Elementary School, where there are a high number of students with one or more parents incarcerated and many who are economically disadvantaged. Going into the meeting, we planned to pitch putting on a Junior Prosecutor or Mock Trial Academy. However, when speaking with principal Connie Hovseth, it became obvious that their needs were much more basic. She explained that she had 33 third-graders who were two grade levels behind in their reading skills. They stayed after school three days a week and attended Saturday school. Most did not have books at home or parents who speak English; therefore, this extra time at school is the only time they have outside of the regular school day to read in English. The goal was to catch them up to have a fighting chance on the fifth-grade tests so they could be accepted into one of the magnet schools. Ms. Hovseth needed people to sit and read with the children for one hour one day a week.
As we all know, many people who turn to crime do not finish high school. If these students didn’t catch up with their peers, they were that much more likely to drop out of school and start committing crimes. Thus, Reading is Lawesome was created by fellow community prosecutor Brittany Dunn, and we began reading with these students for an hour a week. (That’s Brittany and a student in the photo on the opposite page.) Many of the kids openly shared that their moms or dads were in prison, and they planted trees in their courtyard in memory of students who had died. One year they planted seven trees for friends they had lost to drive-by shootings.
Each week we read with them and talked to them about what we do as prosecutors. At the conclusion of the school year they took a field trip to the courthouse where they got to see where we worked and have a graduation ceremony. They were so excited that they even created an impromptu mock trial in which they sentenced the teacher to “life” for stealing a computer.
Knowing that most had no books at home, we also took up an internal office collection to buy books. We had enough for each student to take five books home in a monogrammed Reading is Lawesome shoestring backpack for the summer vacation. The teachers and principal love the program because it gives kids positive interaction with law enforcement so that they know that not all people who carry guns are bad people. Additionally, it gave these kids a career goal and exposed them to something that they would not ordinarily experience.
One could argue that we, as lawyers, shouldn’t be wasting our time reading with children. But community prosecution is about developing programs that meet the needs of the community, and these children needed help reading. At the end of the day this was just the avenue by which we exposed them to the positive side of law enforcement. We always look for clues to see if what we are doing is working, and I was rewarded on career day last year with the highest compliment I have ever received. A little girl from my reading group arrived at school in a blazer she had borrowed from her mom with her sleeves rolled up (as it was way too big for her). The teacher told her, “You look so pretty in your black and white outfit.” She responded, “Thank you! I look like Rachael.” That day she had nicknamed herself “Little Rachael.” Coming from that neighborhood, she probably wouldn’t have been looking up to a prosecutor had she not been around a group of us during such a pivotal point in her life.
Justice in Schools
Justice in Schools specifically targets middle school children who have several risk factors for committing crimes as an adult: behavioral issues in school, failing at least one grade level, truancy, and referrals to the juvenile justice system. For one hour a week we meet with these students for a “community building circle” that has a structured process to facilitate open conversation. So much of what these kids hear about is what they are doing wrong, and they do not feel they have a voice in what occurs in their lives. During Justice in Schools it is their turn to talk, and we provide a supportive environment in which they quickly learn that they are not alone in their daily struggles. The circle’s success is grounded in two philosophies:
• empathy builds better understanding, which in turn builds better relationships, and
• helping others aids the helper as much as it does the recipient.
In the circle, they learn to respectfully listen to each other and to give support and advice through their shared experiences, giving the students a sense of accomplishment and self-worth in the process. Our program manager, Renee Breazeale, has been an invaluable resource in developing Justice in Schools because she is a certified trauma counselor and licensed chemical dependency counselor. So many of the kids have traumatic issues that they are dealing with, and she has been a great resource to help us navigate healthy boundaries and guide the children to appropriate resources. Having staff with mental health training and substance abuse counseling is truly a necessity for any community prosecution model.
We have even used a modification of this process for conflict resolution between students. Many of the students look forward to our time, telling us, “I like being here because we talk about life,” and the students have started to help each other by keeping each other’s behaviors “in check.” We also use this time to keep the students focused on their futures through short- and long-term goals. As I stated earlier, when we ask the kids what they want to do for a career, it is usually a ball player, rapper, or drug dealer. They believe that these are literally the only options open to them. When I hear them talking, it makes me wonder how many young men sitting in our prisons today thought the same thing when they were that age. We must do something to change their perception of life; otherwise we can’t hope to reduce crime.
It is probably more evident now why we focus on all three of these areas. First, we have to reach children before they enter our criminal justice system. Second, we should provide a mechanism to redirect those who had a momentary lapse in judgment with a second chance, when appropriate, so that their entire life won’t be destroyed with a criminal record. Finally, we have to enlist the public’s help in doing all of this through collaborative partnerships and educating them on what the DA’s office does.
Our work is not without frustration. There are days when I wonder, Is it working? When those days happen I try and remember the starfish story. Remember this one? In it, a grandfather is walking along the seashore with his young grandson, and there were hundreds of starfish washed up on the sand. The grandfather watched as his grandson began throwing them one by one back into the ocean. He said, “Son, what are you doing?” The grandson replied, “I’m saving them.” Touched by his grandson’s kindness, the grandfather said, “Well, that’s noble of you, son, but you will never be able to save them all.” And his little grandson replied, “I know.” And as he picked up another one and tossed it into the ocean, he said, “But I saved this one … and this one … and this one …”
We can’t stop all the children from eventually sitting in the defendant’s chairs, but one child at a time we are changing the direction of their lives. Let’s hope that all those we have saved will go on to become prosecutors, police officers, judges, crime scene investigators, and teachers. How many more lives will they continue to change because someone stopped along the way to save them?
This story is dedicated to all the current and past members of the Dallas County Community Prosecution Unit for their efforts and dedication to not only make our community a better place to live but also for their time and dedication to the youngest citizens of our community: Hilary Blake, Renee Breazeale, Tara Cunningham, Corwyn Davis, Brittany Dunn, Alix Emerson, Mindy Fancher, Rolando Garcia, Sanford Holmes, Jennifer Kinder, Seancory Patton, James Tate, and Haim Vasquez. Special thanks also go to Criminal District Attorney Craig Watkins, First Assistant Heath Harris, and our supervisor, Special Fields Bureau Chief Russell Wilson, for their leadership and unwavering support of our efforts.