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How Craig Watkins transformed Dallas as the first Black district attorney in the state

Tanya and Craig Watkins pose for the camera, standing in front of a tall bookcase.
Keren Carrión
Tanya and Craig Watkins in Craig's law office in Dallas.

Craig Watkins made history when he became Dallas County’s district attorney in 2007. The county, which includes Texas’ fourth-largest city, had elected the first Democratic district attorney in 20 years and the first Black person to the position. What’s more, Watkins’ victory made him the first Black district attorney in the entire state.

The most recent episode of In Black America is an encore conversation between Waktins and host John L. Hanson Jr. that originally aired in 2009. The show decided to revisit the conversation in remembrance of Watkins, his life and his achievements follwing his sudden death in December 2023 at 56.

Watkins was born and raised in Dallas. He began his journey in law when he received a bachelor’s degree in political science from Prairie View A&M, the historically Black college, in 1990. He went on to earn his law degree at Texas Wesleyan University in 1994. Watkins worked in the offices of the Dallas city attorney and Dallas County public defender office before being sworn in as district attorney. While in office, Watkins freed 35 wrongfully convicted individuals by consulting DNA testing and reviewing evidence illegally withheld from defense attorneys. After he did not win reelection in 2014, he continued his working in private practice until his death.

Watkins spoke to Hanson about his goals as a district attorney and his hopes for the future of restorative justice in Texas. An excerpt of this conversation can be found below.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

On assisting reentry for those wrongfully convicted

We instituted what's called a Conviction Integrity Unit. And that unit's primary responsibility is to make sure that the convictions that we obtain have integrity…that the correct decision was made.

Not only do we free the innocent, we continue to investigate the case to find out who committed the crime. In several of the cases that we've exonerated, we've actually found out who should have been prosecuted for it. And in this whole DNA project, this Conviction Integrity Unit has basically given us the tools to go and lobby our lawmakers for reform. We can look at a case and determine where the problem was had.

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What we're doing here is the right thing and people believe in it, and that crosses party lines. [It] has nothing to do with being liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican. It has everything to do with being a Texan and what's best for our state.

On breaking the cycle of career criminals

If we get a person that may commit, for example, a burglary of a vehicle or even a building, that's an opportunity for us to look at this individual. It's kind of like going to the doctor. We're going to do a body checkup on you to see what ails you. And then we're going to prescribe the proper medication to make sure that, you don't have this illness anymore. … We're going to put standards of rehabilitation in place to make sure that after you are punished, we're also going to make you whole.

On a larger scale for this to work, it just can't be done by one DA. And, you know, even though [Dallas is] the second largest county in the state, we're going to collectively need all of law enforcement throughout the state to implement these progressive programs for us to make Texas the model of what it means to dispense criminal justice in this country.

On transforming Dallas’ reputation as “tough on crime” as district attorney

Part of this job is to seek justice, but it's also to protect the citizens that I represent. And I saw the fact that we had this mentality of being tough on crime all these years. We weren't protecting our citizens. You know, the crime rate in Dallas County at the time was one of the highest, and we were considered one of the most violent cities. But yet we have these DAs who campaigned on the fact that they were tough on crime and their conviction rate. But unfortunately, when you looked at the statistics, the fact that they were tough or they had a high conviction rate did nothing to make any of us safer.

And so my philosophical approach is more of being proactive instead of reactive. It's easy to react to criminal activity. We react by punishing people. The proactive stance is, let's make sure that we don't have to put people in a position to be punished. Let's make sure crime does not happen. And so that's the philosophy that we're bringing to the DA's office. And hopefully this philosophy will spread not just throughout, you know, this region, but throughout the country.

John L. Hanson is the producer and host of the nationally syndicated radio series In Black America. It’s heard on home station KUT at 10 p.m. Tuesdays and 6:30 a.m. Sundays — and weekly on close to 20 stations across the country. The weekly podcast of IBA, the only nationally broadcast Black-oriented public affairs radio program, is one of KUT’s most popular podcasts.