This week, I attended a seminar aimed at folks working for non-profit groups. The keynote speaker was District Attorney Craig Watkins, the first African American DA in Texas. He described his vision for a safer Dallas, and I was surprisingly favorably impressed.
Watkins began humbly. He was wrong, he said, about preceding DA Bill Hill. After a long negative campaign against Hill’s Republican designee Toby Shook which generated resentment on both sides, he attended an event at Hill’s invitation. It was an introduction to Mercy Street Ministries, the West Dallas outreach by Hill’s son Trey. Trey graduated from Highland Park High the same year Watkins graduated from Carter. Watkins figured that was all they had in common. But Trey moved his wife and children to West Dallas and founded the ministry. If Hill’s son has a heart that big, he figured, Watkins had misjudged him.
Watkins’ vision for Dallas is based on the premise that we all want the same things: safe neighborhoods, a healthy environment to raise our children, and a successful economy where everyone does their part. His work on the Innocence Project has been all over the press, but his reasoning may surprise you. As a prosecutor, he said, I am seeking the trust of the jury in order to convict and punish offenders. To be persuasive, I have to cure previous errors in the system.
Watkins wants to invest more money in rehabilitating people convicted of nonviolent crimes. Not because he cares about the criminal, he says, but because he doesn’t want the public later to encounter a smarter, more conniving, hardened criminal who has learned in prison how not to be caught. For the $34 a day we spend to incarcerate that person, he asks, what are we as taxpayer getting in return? Is the $8 per day we spend to educate them enough to keep them from reoffending? What is it worth to move them off the track toward reoffending and onto the track to become a law-abiding tax-paying citizen? I hope you’ll have occasion to hear him speak and decide for yourself.