Dear Mr. Barry Johnson,
First, congratulations on your primary win and the clearing of the field that leaves you as incoming McLennan County district attorney. It sounds like you have been doing the right things: visiting with DAs in other counties, talking with people in the community and signaling you’re going to work quickly to wrap up the remaining Twin Peaks cases once you take office in January. In this contentious political season, it’s good to have one transition that is already in place.
I write to you with a few ideas to throw into the mix. As I wrote on these pages before the primary election, I don’t do so from the same vantage point as those you have talked with already: My experience as a prosecutor was in the federal system in Detroit nearly two decades ago. I live so far away that it snowed here last week. However, I do teach and practice criminal law, and trained some of the assistant district attorneys you will find on your staff. I also have the advantage of distance; because I will have no cases involving your office, I don’t have anything to lose through honesty.
First, you need to do some weeding. There are people and policies in the office that will not serve your goals and have not served the community. I realize it is hard to come in and make a change up front, but you may find the first few weeks are the best time to do this. Rip the old, ragged bandage off quickly.
Second, address head-on the widespread perception that there is a “Baylor exception” to charging and plea practices. I suggest two concrete steps toward this goal. First, before charging or offering a plea to Baylor-related defendants, survey what was done in other cases with similar facts. Don’t look for the exceptional case, but the average one, involving a defendant with no special resources. Then act consistently with that prior practice. Second, treat the General Counsel of Baylor University and his or her staff the same way you would anyone else who wants to importune for a defendant. If you regularly allow an audience with mothers of defendants, for example, then there is no lack of integrity with allowing the same opportunity to Baylor officials. If you won’t meet with everyone’s supporters, there should not be an exception for Baylor.
Third, don’t forget you are tasked with solving problems. Not just the problem, generally, of laws being violated, but the larger problems that trouble our society: opioid addiction, human trafficking, drunk driving. You have a remarkable and singular power to address these issues, especially if you can develop a strong bond with the law enforcement community and serve as a true leader beyond your office. You can incapacitate the most consequential people, use forfeitures wisely to shut down criminal enterprises and give hope and solace to those who have been victimized. Those broad and important goals have been lost in the smoke and haze of the past several years in the McLennan County justice system.
Perhaps most importantly, I urge you to do this: Use the right metrics to measure whether or not you are solving problems. That right metric will rarely be simply how many people are locked up, or how long their sentences are, since this tells us little about what is happening in the community. We locked up hundreds of thousands of drug users and traffickers, for example, and it made almost no difference in narcotics use.
So what is the right metric? For narcotics, it will be the price of narcotics in the community. If you work closely with law enforcement and their informants, you can get a good sense of street prices. If interdiction succeeds, the price goes up — it’s a simple function of supply and demand, since restricting supply should cause the price to rise. For opioids, the number of overdoses (both fatal and non-fatal) can help you know how well you’re doing.
Finally, pay attention to the fresh look many prosecutors across the country are giving to the use of cash bail. It serves a crucial function in ensuring future appearances but is not meant to punish. As much of our nation recently argued, the presumption of innocence should matter. That should be true at least as much for those who are losing their jobs and families for a lack of bail money as it is for those appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
You are about to become a crucial custodian of justice in a place beloved by the people who reside there. You have been treating this new job with the respect it deserves, and I hope all involved will give you a fair chance to create your own culture in an office that desperately needs change.
Source: The Waco Tribune