New District Attorney Craig Watkins of Dallas is revolutionizing the criminal justice system there, says the Washington Post. The first elected black district attorney in Texas, he is replacing many white prosecutors with minorities and women. In what the Post says is an unprecedented act for any jurisdiction in the U.S., Watkins is allowing the Texas affiliate of the Innocence Project to review hundreds of cases dating back to 1970 to decide whether DNA tests should be conducted to validate past convictions. Dallas has more post-conviction DNA exonerations than any county in the nation–12 in five years, more than at least two states. A 13th exoneration is expected to be announced soon.
Watkins is black, a Democrat, he’s young, he was a defense lawyer with an neighborhood office, and he has no prosecutorial experience except a year-long internship handling misdemeanors in the city prosecutor’s office. Watkins, 39, is the first Dallas Democratic district attorney in 20 years. During the campaign he promised to be “smart on crime,” not just tough on crime; to ask for the death penalty when appropriate but also to advocate for better rehabilitation programs and post-release support services for ex-convicts. “You know what people call it? ‘Hug-a-thug,’ ” said Watkins. “People say I’ll coddle these criminals. But it’s not about coddling criminals; it’s about being smart.”