Harris County prosecutor shortage What it means for Black community

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Saying they are understaffed and underfunded, the Harris County District Attorney’s office is continuing its fight for more staffers, and now, it has an ally in the form of data from Texas Southern University. 

New research from the Center for Justice Research (CJR) shows there is indeed a shortage of prosecutors in the DA’s office, which could negatively affect communities of color. 

“Researchers argue that overworked, understaffed prosecutors are more likely to plea- bargain. They are less likely to adequately be able to process cases,” said Dr. Howard Henderson, director of the CJR, which conducted the study. 

“You see direct impact on the community. We understand that not being able to go to trial has a negative impact on a lot of members of the community.”

The 20-page report examined caseloads, funding, and available resources to find that, when compared to other large jurisdictions, the Harris County DA’s Office is overburdened, underfunded and understaffed and at least 100 prosecutors short.

“We have a situation in Harris County now where they basically don’t have enough courts,” Henderson said. 

“So, when you add more prosecutors to that, you’re looking at how this issue quadruples and it increases the strain on an already strained system. If you don’t do anything about it, poor and minority communities will continue to be disproportionately treated in the system.”

This is especially important, Henderson said, because of the fact that 85 percent of all criminal cases (usually drug cases) are plea-bargained down. 

“Plea-bargaining means you don’t even try the case,” he said. “You just admit guilt for a lesser sentence. And the research shows that if you don’t admit guilt and you actually go to trial, you have a greater likelihood of having your case thrown out. 

“Those who are unable to post bail may be jailed for extended periods of time prior to trial. As a result, these individuals may be more willing to accept a plea bargain, regardless of their innocence.”

THE DA’S FIGHT

Harris County DA Kim Ogg welcomed the report, which was the result of a February request for more prosecutors.

Citing high caseloads in felony and misdemeanor trial bureaus, Ogg asked county commissioners for $21 million to fund the new positions, a move that drew pushback from criminal justice reformers questioning whether more prosecutors would lead to more prosecutions.

 Ogg argued that wasn’t the case, and that more staff would instead help her office figure out more quickly which cases should be dismissed or diverted.

“That’s a grossly shallow approach to a problem that is actually controlled by population,” Ogg said. “The problem is crime. It’s a math problem. When you have four and a half million people in a county and you’re only staffed for 2 million, the community is less safe and that we are less able to help as many people as quickly as we could with more people. My premise is that it takes people to help people.”

Ogg said her office files over 100,000 cases a year, too much for the current staff load.

“Those all reflect cases against people, who are either victims or accused and each case has to be considered individually. We only have 335 lawyers. The ability of our people is delayed and I think justice delayed is justice denied,” she said. 

“More people would allow us to look at our cases more thoroughly early on, instead of the six months to several years that it takes to get these cases to trial and so that we could reach better resolutions more quickly.”  

Commissioners have, so far, refused to greenlight the hires. They did add a handful of civil rights but have yet to settle the question as to how many prosecutors the county needs and whether that requires more hiring.

EASING THE BURDEN

Overburdened and under-resourced prosecutors, Henderson said, can lead to a less efficient criminal justice system where people spend more time behind bars awaiting the resolution of their cases.

“A lot of what Harris County deals with is because of its size,” Henderson said. “And for some reason or the other, its criminal justice system and its mechanism for processing cases does not measure up to other equally situated cities around the country. 

“We concluded that Harris County is just not funding the District Attorney’s Office the same way it’s funded in other places and they spent a lot of time trying to trying to explain why they don’t do that.”

But experts cautioned against making comparisons between prosecutor offices in different counties, which may have different tasks, different local political landscapes and different crime rates.

Significant trial delays increase in-case processing time, and excessive use of plea bargains are just some of the consequences Americans must face due to overworked prosecutors. The minority community bears the brunt of these consequences as Blacks and Hispanics are more likely to face conviction due to a criminal justice system that often disparages those unable to afford effective representation.

Despite having 2,400 district attorneys in this country, no one has sought to determine the average number of hours it takes to process a case through the district attorney’s office in the last 40 years. Even fewer have conducted a simple comparison of prosecutor budgets, caseloads and staff.

“It’s not just a matter of hiring more prosecutors,” Henderson added. “DA’s offices also must consider the costs associated with the additional courtroom work group that will need to be included in the augmentations.  At the same time, critics of this approach must provide substantiated alternatives after comparing equally situated prosecutor offices. 

“At the end of the day, reducing prosecutor caseloads is not just about funding, but about ensuring that constitutional protections are afforded to everyone,” he said.

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Report findings

  • Harris County has only 45 percent of the total number of prosecutors of Cook County, Ill., and 89 percent of Maricopa County, Ariz.
  • Harris County prosecutors have one of the highest felony caseloads, yet they have fewer misdemeanor cases than similarly situated prosecutor offices.
  • Despite being the third largest U.S. county, Harris County’s 703 full-time
    employees make it the smallest staffed office of the largest seven counties.
  • Harris County’s prosecutor office received $19.12 per capita funding, significantly lower than other comparable counties.