County votes against more prosecutors

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg will have to find another way to deal with her office’s backlog after county commissioners rejected her request for a $20 million budget increase to hire more prosecutors. 

Under Ogg’s proposal, 102 prosecutors would have been hired, an increase of roughly 40 percent. Ogg had hoped to reduce the county’s backlog of around 40,000 cases, which had been exacerbated after the Harris County Criminal Justice Center was flooded during Hurricane Harvey. 

Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo tweeted his support for the DA’s request, calling the shortage of prosecutors a perfect storm of potential crime.

The three Democratic members of Commissioners Court – Commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia and County Judge Lina Hidalgo – supported increasing the district attorney’s budget by 7 percent, in line with increases for other county departments

“This is not the only way, and certainly not the most cost-effective way to decrease prosecutor caseloads,” Hidalgo said.

A parade of prosecutors spoke of unrealistic caseloads that leave them overextended, unable to properly serve defendants, find witnesses and protect victims. Heather Marshall, a junior felony prosecutor, described working 70 hours weekly and said her caseload has more than doubled since moving to Houston from the district attorney’s office in Queens County, N.Y.

Ellis said voting yes would signal a commitment to doubling down on the system’s over- reliance on arrest, prosecution and incarceration for low-level, nonviolent offenses related to poverty, homelessness, mental health, prostitution and substance use.

“Given the county’s finite resources, we should be investing in reforms like pre-arrest/pre-charge diversion programs that, unlike pre-trial diversion programs, will divert the person before they enter or re-enter the criminal justice system to services and treatments that can better address the root causes of these types of cases,” he said.

Some progressive groups, such as the Texas Organizing Project and the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, also spoke out against the proposal, accusing Ogg of violating her campaign pledge to reform the criminal justice system. The groups said that more prosecutors would lead to more people being jailed.

But Ogg and those who supported the proposal said the aim wasn’t to jail more people, but rather to speed up the criminal justice process.

“It’s not compassionate to make an innocent individual languish in jail while waiting to get their justice because there’s not enough prosecutors to manage the file,” said Commissioner Jack Cagle, who voted in favor of the proposal. 

“My intention is to support a staged and stepped increase in the number of trial prosecutors to assist the DA in eliminating this bottleneck in the justice system, so that we can be compassionate and caring for those that need to be out of the jail and either back into society or into the state prison system.”