ACLU of Texas Executive Director Terri Burke, far left, closes out a debate between DA hopefuls Elizabeth Frizzell and John Creuzot. Anthony Graves, an exoneree, moderated. (Credit: Udi Ofer, ACLU)
Ronnie James, a young black man with a trimmed beard and his wife’s name tattooed on his neck, understands the criminal justice system well in Dallas County. After graduating from Lancaster High School, he said he had nowhere to live, so he stayed with a friend “so I’d have a place to lie my head.” That friend sold cocaine. Eventually, James began selling cocaine, too, as a way to supplement his minimum-wage jobs. “I thought that I would be okay because I was working and selling,” he says, “but I was wrong.”
James got caught and was eventually sentenced to prison and probation. The man who sentenced him in 2007 was none other than Judge John Creuzot, one of the Democratic candidates for Dallas County District Attorney, and the reason why James, wearing an ACLU t-shirt and carrying flyers, was walking down the sidewalk in a residential area of Duncanville on a Thursday afternoon just as high school students unloaded from a bus on the corner.
James is one of 17 Dallas-area canvassers for the American Civil Liberties Union. Most of them are people with criminal records, who are earning $12 an hour to ring doorbells and talk to people about the Democratic primary election. The race for DA has attracted national attention, and nonprofits like the ACLU are trying to drum up voter interest. Two ex-judges – Creuzot and Elizabeth Frizell – face-off against each other in what has become an uncharacteristic conversation for Dallas County: the race to be the most progressive. The winner will race against the incumbent, Republican Faith Johnson.
The job is, as James describes it, “a blessing” because it appeared at a time when he was struggling to find work. After finishing his prison sentence and probation, James said he struggled to find anyone who would hire him. He settled for working in scrap yards and as a server. He came across the ACLU job in his constant hunt for work. One day in January, he said, he crisscrossed South Dallas from Duncanville to Oak Cliff on foot, looking for a job.
Initially, James, who describes himself as shy and is soft-spoken, wasn’t sure how he felt about knocking on doors and asking strangers questions. “I think I can do this,” he said to the hiring manager that first day. “You think you can, or you know you can?” she asked. “I know I can. I will,” he said. And the deal was sealed.
That afternoon, James was leaving hangtags reminding people to vote in the primary. He asked that they sign a petition to keep the next district attorney accountable, whomever it may be. The ACLU does not endorse candidates, but is instead asking people a series of questions about what aspect of the criminal justice system concerns them. It offers general information about policies that will reduce mass incarceration. This means that James was asking people who answered the doorbell about questions like bail setting, neighborhood policing, and treatment versus prison time.
It’s part of the ACLU’s national push to drum up interest in district attorney races and the discretion those office-holders have to influence criminal justice policy. The election of Larry Krasner, a long-time civil rights attorney with a progressive agenda, as district attorney in Philadelphia has sparked conversation across the country, due in no small part to the canvassing efforts of people like James. The ACLU hopes that raising awareness will result not only in the election of prosecutors who are reform-minded but also will hold the candidates accountable once they do take office. As Udi Ofer, the Director of the ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice put it, “We aren’t going anywhere.” In these tight races, hundreds of votes matter.
Candidates Frizell and Creuzot have attended several public forums already where they have espoused their views on issues ranging from bail reform and marijuana prosecutions to the death penalty and prosecutorial misconduct. Over time, their views have evolved as the conversation became more clearly focused on how the Dallas County DA’s office – which only 15 years ago was giving advice on how to keep people of color off of juries – can transform into an agent of justice, not of oppression.
On paper, it doesn’t look like there’s too much space between the two candidates. Elizabeth Frizell has been endorsed by activist Shaun King and his Real Justice PAC, as well as by grassroots groups like Texas Organizing Project, which interviewed both candidates. The organizing extends into raising money: King announced that his fundraising efforts had generated $100,000 for Frizell’s campaign. John Creuzot, long a fixture of the Dallas political scene, has the endorsement of Dallas Democrats as well as a long list of notable who’s-who of the Dallas legal world.
But, at most forums, the two aren’t that far apart. Both support diversion programs, which would shift people out of the criminal justice system into treatment (if they are eligible, of course). Both believe that the bail system is broken and agree it needs to be reformed to take into consideration an individual’s ability to pay. And both have promised to pump up the already-existing Conviction Integrity Unit to prevent and solve wrongful convictions. Both candidates appear to shift their positions in step with the public discussion as they vie for the votes of the Democrats in Dallas.
Most of the people weren’t home that afternoon in Duncanville. One elderly woman came to the door reluctantly, saying she had just been cleaning up dog poop and didn’t want to sign anything. “Do you know anyone who’s been involved in the criminal justice system?” James asked.
She said yes; she had a police officer in the family. James gave her a flyer, and she said that she intended to vote. Another white-haired neighbor haltingly said that she wasn’t registered and returned the flyer. James took it all in good grace. He said that at first it was hard to be rebuffed over and over again, but, he has learned to keep a smile on his face and a positive attitude in the face of rejection.
One aspect of the criminal justice system that bothers James is the lack of treatment alternatives for people who appear to be in need of help more than punishment. He began to talk about his cousin, who, he said, was left without a mother or a father and recently received a sentence of 40 years in federal prison for drug charges. James began to cry as he explained that he felt his cousin never had a chance because “he didn’t have anybody.” He says he tries to send him a little money for his commissary and hopes to visit for his birthday to keep his spirits up. But, he knew that it was hard, and he wiped the tears using his shirt hem.
James says that he is inspired by his five boys and one daughter, for whom he hopes to set a good example. “You can either work hard now and then put your feet up at the beach later,” he said. “Or you can be like me.” He is saving the money for a car and hopes to get his drivers license. “It’s like I’m starting over,” he said. One door at a time.