Saturday, May 25, 2024

Denton County DA balances justice and leniency

District attorneys across America have been in the news lately, and it hasn’t been flattering.

However, Denton County’s longtime District Attorney, Paul Johnson, and his office are fulfilling their duties with the strong hand of justice, while also trying to offer leniency when they can.

Johnson has served as Denton County’s DA since 2007. His current term expires at the end of 2026. Johnson lives in Highland Village with his wife, Katherine, and they have three adult children and one grandchild.

Johnson described having a difficult childhood, and he became a prison guard at the age of 18 to help fund his goal of going to college and law school. Johnson said he originally wanted to be a civil lawyer, but he took an opportunity in criminal law and eventually changed his mind. He credits education, and determination, with getting him to where he is today.

“Education is the equalizer,” Johnson said. “If someone told me I would become the DA of the seventh largest county in Texas, I would never have believed them.”

Since becoming Denton County’s DA, Johnson, a Republican, has instituted several programs aimed to help people individually and the community as a whole. One of them is meant for local high school students, to connect with them and help them understand how and why to become a lawyer. That program, Johnson said, has directly resulted in some of those students joining the DA’s office after graduating from law school.

Among many other programs Johnson launched early in his tenure as DA is one that has made a significant difference for low-level offenders.

“When I first was prosecuting, it was, ‘prison, prison, prison,’” Johnson said. “I realized that the pre-trial diversion program was too limited, only a small number of first-time offenders could be in it. We’ve opened that up quite a bit.”

The program allows for low-level, first-time offenders – such as shoplifting and minor drug suspects — to complete a 12-24-month community service program tailored for them that can get their record expunged.

“I realized that with the internet, people can easily find out that so-and-so got arrested,” Johnson said. “And it can hamper adults trying to find a job, if an employer sees that on their record, the employer will say they’re not interested in them. I wanted to give people a break, instead of making life harder for them.”

Johnson’s office believes in offering leniency and second chances to those who make mistakes, but at the same time, it is strict about enforcing the law, and not choosing certain laws to ignore.

“When you take your oath of office as DA, you are saying, ‘What the law is, I will follow it, and I will enforce it,’” Johnson said.

City of Denton voters last year approved an ordinance to decriminalize low-level marijuana offenses. But marijuana possession, which is against Texas law, had already fallen far down law enforcement’s priorities because of a new state law that legalized hemp and allows for a small amount of THC. “You can’t tell the difference between marijuana and hemp” without expensive and time-consuming lab tests,” Johnson said, so many police departments in Texas will choose to not enforce or prosecute such offenses. It doesn’t happen often nowadays, but if an agency in Denton County does, and it brings the case and positive lab test to the DA’s office, “we’ll prosecute,” he said.

“It starts with police agencies,” Johnson said. “It’s all discretionary, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be, because they’re in the community.

“We still have marijuana charges brought to us, but not as much as we used to. The bigger issue is the harder drugs out there.”

The deadly synthetic drug fentanyl is causing more significant problems around the country and here in Denton County.

“It’s horrible,” Johnson said of fentanyl. “It’s a problem. There are a lot of drugs here, especially up and down the I-35 corridor. Fentanyl robs people of their lives.”

Customs and Border Protection figures show that authorities seized 12,500 pounds of fentanyl at the southern border from October 1, 2022 through January 31, 2023. To put that into perspective, a lethal dose of fentanyl is just 2 milligrams.

Johnson said local residents may be surprised to learn that human trafficking is also a big problem in Denton County.

“It was under the radar for a long time,” Johnson said. “It’s everywhere, and it’s real.”

As the county’s population continues to grow quickly, so does its crime and so does the need for more prosecutors and jurors.

“We currently have one grand jury meeting a week,” Johnson said. “We’re probably going to need a second one soon.”

Despite the many challenges and some worsening issues, Johnson still loves his job and serving the community.

“This is the best job I’ve ever had, because you can make a huge difference,” Johnson said.

Mark Smith
Mark Smith
Mark Smith is the Digital Editor of The Cross Timbers Gazette.

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