DALLAS — When Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot held a news conference Friday morning to further explain his Thursday letter "to the People of Dallas County" where he outlined his planned reforms for first-offense marijuana possession, criminal trespass, probation, bail and more, store owners like April Gonzales didn't like what she heard.
"The first thing that came to mind is like great, now Dallas County is going to be a free for all," she said from her medical clothing store Dorothy's Uniforms, near Wheatland Road and I-20 in the southern part of the county.
She's been the victim of shoplifters and armed robberies so many times that her store is now outfitted with multiple security cameras, she carries her own handgun for protection, and she is continually frustrated by an online reporting system, which is the only method to get a shoplifting case considered for action by Dallas police. Additional frustration arrived with the District Attorney's decision on "theft of necessary items."
The District attorney wrote that "criminalizing poverty is counter-production" and that his office "will not prosecute theft of personal (consumption) items less than $750 unless the evidence shows that the alleged theft was for economic gain."
Regardless the intent, Gonzales fears it sends a message to every would-be shoplifter in the county.
"And if they feel like they can get away with that much more it makes it just even harder on us," Gonzales said.
"It seems like to me that's going to put a lot of mom and pop stores in Oak Cliff and South Dallas and Pleasant Grove who are just making a living," Dallas Police Association President Mike Mata said, "It's going to run them out of business."
The DA's motivation is to not impose more problems and court fines on people already in poverty who might be better served by education or the chance to make better choices.
Jesus Monge, a reformed criminal who now works with the group Cornbread Hustle and its effort to ease convicts back into society after they've served their team, agrees that avoiding jail time and heavy fines and fees on his first offense might have made a difference in his decisions.
Convicted of a home burglary at the age of 19, his criminal conviction affected his ability to find honest work. He eventually returned to the same criminal lifestyle and eventually served nine years in state prison for multiple convictions.
"I think it would have made a difference," he said of the initial punishment he received. "I shouldn't have but I did revert back to what I knew to do. Which was stealing."
By mid-afternoon Creuzot called a second news conference to clarify what he meant to say in his initial meeting withe the media. The morning session was cut short when he had to attend previously scheduled meetings. He wanted to clarify that his reforms and their impact will be watched closely.
"If there's any evidence that suggests that it's causing an increase in crime in a community we'll have to come back and adjust," Creuzot said. "Because we know one thing for certain, jail is not going to solve the problem."
"We're going to ask that we sit down and talk about this," National Black Police Association president Sheldon Smith said after the first news conference, expressing his concern that police agencies were not notified of the reforms in advance. "To come up with a solution that's best for the community."
A community of store owners like April Gonzales, with cameras already rolling, to see what comes next.
Other police agencies in Dallas county have also responded to the District Attorneys announcement.
DeSoto Police Chief Joseph Costa, in a letter Friday afternoon, said Creuzot "provides information stating what his office will not prosecute, but fails to provide sufficient alternatives other than arrest for our officers as they deal with ongoing issues of homelessness and mental illness."
"Many times, these conditions cause individuals to commit the types of offenses that will not be prosecuted under his new directives," Costa wrote. "I understand and appreciate that in Texas, the elected District Attorney can control which cases his office prosecutes and those offenses he chooses not to prosecute. Police officers, however, have to follow state law and make arrests when needed and appropriate to protect our citizens and business owners. Therefore, I have instructed DeSoto Police Officers to continue to make arrests as necessary to protect our citizens and to help prevent crime, regardless of the initiatives implemented by the District Attorney."
The Mesquite Police Association also responded:
"...think about it – this would mean that if you decide to dine-and-dash at a restaurant, you can't be prosecuted. After all, it's necessary to eat, right? How about if your car is stolen, and it's worth less than $750 because that's all you can afford? All the bad guy needs to say is that he stole the car because he really needs a means of transportation to work. All of a sudden, you no longer have rights as a victim. Retail in Mesquite will feel the full effect of these policies, as the policies encourage criminal actions."
And this statement from the Rowlett Police Department:
"The Rowlett police department will continue to follow the Texas Penal Code and arrest when the elements of the offense are met. The prosecution of those offenders will continue to be at the discretion of the DA's office. To our knowledge, there have been no such proposals from the Rockwall County DA, but if that changes, I'll make sure to relay it to y'all."