DALLAS (CN) — Democratic challengers to Dallas County’s Republican District Attorney Faith Johnson blasted her leadership during a candidates’ forum Saturday, criticizing her office’s lack of transparency and its treatment of crime victims.
Elizabeth Frizell and John Creuzot — both Democrats and former state district judges — largely agreed in their criticism of Johnson’s year-long tenure. They are running against each other in the March primary election. Johnson did not attend the forum at Paul Quinn College in South Dallas, sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas.
“Do you know that crime victims will find me on Instagram and Facebook and say they are trying to contact the DA and no one calls them back?” Frizell said. “They say the DA later calls back and says the case has already been pled. But they wanted to get on the stand and tell their story.”
Frizell said Johnson’s office should always consider what the victims want in a case.
“This is us interacting as human beings,” she said. “This is what I will do as DA.”
Creuzot shared a similar story about trying to contact the district attorney to say he believed a family member needed treatment instead of incarceration. He says he was told the office does not speak to family members.
“Did you know you cannot even go onto the Dallas County website and find out what a prosecutor’s email is?” Creuzot asked. “How about that for transparency? If you do not get a reasonable response, you should have that reported to victim advocacy. You deserve that respect.”
Both candidates supported comments from the audience urging treatment options for drug offenders rather than incarceration.
“Would you commit to finding another way of treatment instead of jail?” attendee Robbie Frazier. “It does not treat the problem, and incarceration just makes it worse.”
Frizell said that repeated incarceration is not drug rehabilitation, which “needs to be outside of the criminal justice system.”
She spoke of failures in rehabilitation programs that do not treat defendants’ drug addiction. Citing her experience as a judge, she said defendants often told her they would rather go back to prison then back to rehab because counselors “would talk to us like we are crazy.”
Creuzot said Johnson’s office has a choice on how to handle drug offenses, drawing a distinction between crimes and problems of public health.
“Where does a case come from? When the police file it,” he said. “Is the DA ethically or morally obligated to treat the case as a criminal justice case when it is a public health issue? We do not have to prosecute those cases.”
Creuzot blamed the Republican-controlled Legislature for excessive filing of criminal charges in drug cases, due to “poorly funded on-demand” drug-treatment programs.
Frizell said more than 50 percent of state prisoners have some kind of drug problem. She said there are no mandatory minimum sentences in state court, unlike federal court, so prisoners “do a little time, get out and do a little more time.”
“Do you want to really change this, or do you want to [pad] your resume?” she asked. “You need to have the mindset to change the system.”
Johnson was appointed district attorney by Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott 14 months ago, three months after Susan Hawk stepped down to seek mental health treatment. In private practice at the time, Johnson is a former chief felony prosecutor at the district attorney’s office and state district judge. She is the first African-American woman appointed to the job.
Her office is conducting a high-profile investigation into alleged elderly voter fraud in West Dallas. An arrest was made in July after residents complained that they received absentee ballots they did not request, and then a man knocked on their door offering to deliver the ballots. Others complained they were unable to vote on Election Day as someone had mailed in absentee votes in their names. The uncertainty over fraudulent votes resulted in a state district judge sequestering several hundred absentee ballots during local runoff elections in June, a move that delayed election night results.
Frizell has been a consistent critic of Johnson as district attorney. She spoke on behalf of fired prosecutor Jody Warner in November, days after Warner was fired when an Uber driver released an embarrassing audio recording of Warner allegedly berating and belittling him while flaunting her prosecutorial powers.
Appearing alongside Warner at a press conference where Warner apologized for her behavior, Frizell called her an “excellent prosecutor.” Frizell questioned whether Johnson was too hasty in firing Warner.
Saturday’s forum was moderated by Anthony Graves, who was exonerated in 2010 after spending 18 years in state prison, 12 of them on death row. His prosecutor, former Burleson County District Attorney Charles Sebesta, had his law license revoked in 2015 for what the State Bar of Texas concluded was prosecutorial misconduct: withholding evidence as lead prosecutor in Graves’ case. The Texas Supreme Court Board of Disciplinary Appeals upheld his disbarment in 2016.
Graves now works as smart justice initiatives manager for the ACLU of Texas.