November 17, 2009
Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins shared his path to leadership – from shy first-year engineering student to Texas’ first African-American district attorney – with students attending the President’s Leadership Summit at SMU on November 11, 2009.
The program at Hughes-Trigg Student Center, sponsored by SMU President R. Gerald Turner and the Office of Leadership and Community Involvement, offers students an opportunity to learn from community leaders in a range of fields.
Watkins, who has worked to resolve cases of wrongful conviction while in office, said he realized early in his studies at Prairie View A&M University that he wanted to pursue political science rather than engineering.
“I got to study individuals who really made a difference and changed the fabric not just of this country, but of the world,” he said.
He said he and all leaders face a challenging decision in tough situations: “Will you be a Mussolini or Martin King, a Hitler or a Gandhi? Will you be a person who progresses your society or a person who progresses your own selfish goals? My experience tells me – and history tells us – to do what’s in the best interest of the people you’ve been chosen to lead.”
Here are highlights of Watkins’ question-and-answer session with students:
What can we do about the link between poverty, education and the criminal system?
We have to change the philosophical approach to the criminal justice system throughout the country. We can’t keep building these warehouses.
Those individuals we’ve incarcerated, 99 percent will get out within a five-year period. And if we don’t use that opportunity when they are incarcerated to address those ills that cause them to commit crimes, we make ourselves less safe.
If you look at the statistics of those folks, they’re uneducated drug users without skills. When they get out, they’re uneducated drug users without skills, and on top of that, they’re ex cons. So what do we expect?
Since we’re spending tax dollars to incarcerate them, and since we have their full attention, why not use our resources to make sure when they come back to your neighborhood that they’re educated, that they’re not on drugs and have skills?
Is the privatized jail system causing higher numbers of prisoners?
The larger problem is political. Look at the political process of the last 20 years. The folks who run for office run on the platform of being tough on crime, right? You have judges and DAs who build their success on the number of individuals they send to prison.
That’s a sign of failure. We should build success not on the percentage of individuals sent to prison, but on the percentage that we lower the crime rate. The goal is that you won’t be a victim of crime. The goal is to reduce the number of criminals. And no, jails should not be built for profit.
What happens when the right thing to do contradicts what the public wants you to do?
That’s part of leadership. When you talk with people individually, they know the right thing to do. I think we all know right and wrong. But when we get in a group, what’s right and wrong can get lost. As a leader, you have to be able to hone in on what’s right and get those individuals to understand. It’s a process.
When you come in as an agent of change, you can’t do too much change at one time. You have to do little things, and then when you do big things, people will be ready.
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