Harris County Advocacy Groups Blast DA Kim Ogg’s Push for Additional Prosecutors
Letter calls on Harris County Commissioners Court to turn down request
Style Magazine Newswire | 12/9/2019, 11:21 a.m.
Ahead of the Harris County Commissioners Court’s first set of preliminary budget hearings today, a slew of advocacy groups in and around Houston slammed Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg for an expected funding request for additional prosecutors for her office and called on Commissioners to reject the request, the fifth such ask by DA Ogg’s office since the start of 2019.
“District Attorney Kim Ogg is coming to you yet again to drastically increase the size of her office,” wrote the groups in a letter to the commission. “And she is doing it once again using troublingly flawed numbers and without any clear explanation of why she needs these additional prosecutors. We write today to ask you to stand up for public safety, the strength of our communities, and wise use of taxpayer dollars.”
The letter, delivered to the Harris County Commissioners Court over the weekend, was signed by 10 groups: Texas Organizing Project, Grassroots Leadership, the Texas Civil Rights Project, the Workers Defense Project, the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, Restoring Justice, Texas Appleseed, Texas Advocates for Justice, and SEIU Texas.
In the letter, the groups take DA Ogg to task for failing to take meaningful action to reduce caseloads, pointing to the explosion of cases her office has filed that courts have dismissed due to a lack of probable cause - a stunning 3,200 cases, or a 70% increase over 2015.
“There is no indication she has taken sufficient steps to reform practices by drawing fewer people into the system in the first place,” say the groups in the letter. “We are extremely troubled that she would waste taxpayer money filing this many bad cases and then come to you asking for more money because her caseloads are too high.”
The letter also references DA Ogg’s reliance on faulty data to make the case for expanding her office. In October, more than two dozen legal scholars raised concerns with a Texas Southern University study DA Ogg had leaned on to justify her case for more prosecutors. A Houston Chronicle story on their critiques revealed that Ogg’s office had communicated with the researcher behind the study, raising questions about the study’s independence.
Finally, the groups point to the harmful ramifications of adding more prosecutors, particularly as Harris County is moving to roll back incarceration with a newly-approved bail settlement that will reduce the use of cash bail for misdemeanor offenses. While DA Ogg has claimed that more prosecutors would allow her office to clear cases, research has shown that adding prosecutors increases the rate of incarceration.
“Harris County is on the verge of real progress. D.A. Ogg has proven too many times that she cannot be trusted to use taxpayer funds responsibly and in our county’s best interests,” conclude the groups. “Please invest our hard-earned money where it can actually make a difference.”
The full text of the letter can be found below and attached:
We write today out of a great concern for Harris County. District Attorney Kim Ogg is coming to you yet again to drastically increase the size of her office. Specifically, she is requesting 58 new prosecutors at the cost of $12 million. And she is doing it once again using troublingly flawed numbers and without any clear explanation of why she needs these additional prosecutors. We write today to ask you to stand up for public safety, the strength of our communities, and wise use of taxpayer dollars.
When D.A. Ogg came to you for more prosecutors in January, you wisely rejected that request, though you did provide Ogg a 7% budget increase of $5.8 million. In addition, you ordered a comprehensive study to look at caseloads in Harris County.
She came back to you at least three times before today. In April, you gave her four additional prosecutors to investigate environmental crimes, and in July you gave her seven prosecutors and three investigators in the aftermath of the tragic results from the police department’s Harding Street raid. With that approval, however, Commissioners expressed concern, “warn[ing] Ogg,” according to the Chronicle, “against coming to Commissioners Court with a series of small hiring requests.” As County Judge Hidalgo stated, “We need to be thoughtful, and making clear, that we’re not opening the door for the 102 new prosecutors to be brought piecemeal. There’s a reason why we wanted to look at an evaluation of the criminal justice system as a whole.”
When D.A. Ogg came to you in February, she claimed she needed the extra prosecutors in order to clear cases and help people trapped in the system who shouldn’t be. As many of us pointed out then, there are two glaring problems with this argument. First, as detailed in the book Locked In by John Pfaff, the most likely impact of hiring more prosecutors is increased incarceration; the explosion in the number of line prosecutors has been identified as one of the drivers of mass incarceration. Second, and directly related, we still do not know what has caused there to be, according to her numbers, such an extraordinary explosion of cases during her administration, especially in light of the fact crime has gone down. Given her regressive stances on numerous other issues that have arisen during her term, there is no indication she has taken sufficient steps to reform practices by drawing fewer people into the system in the first place. In fact, Harris County continues to have the highest number of ICE arrests in the nation, and the overwhelming majority of those arrests are a direct result of contact with the criminal legal system, including the overzealous prosecution of low-level and nonviolent offenses. Prosecution for even the lowest level offense can result in deportation for long-time immigrant residents. Immigrant families in Harris County, constituting 25% of the county’s population, are torn apart every day because of D.A. Ogg’s inefficient use of prosecutorial resources.
Between February and now, D.A. Ogg has taken a number of actions that are cause for concern. Among them:
Despite campaigning to reform the bail system, and in fact continuing to say she supports bail reform, she took extraordinary measures to oppose Harris County’s historic package of reforms.
A court took the rare step of fining a prosecutor in her office for withholding evidence that could have been helpful to the defense.
Despite the myriad problems associated with the death penalty, including tremendous strain on resources, D.A. Ogg continues to push for the execution of a man whose death sentence was overturned because it was found that prosecutors likewise withheld evidence that could have spared him from the death penalty, as well as in two cases of people with intellectual disability, one of whom is also mentally ill.
On September 12, Greenpeace members engaged in a protest of the fossil fuel industry’s contribution to climate change by suspending themselves off the Fred Hartman Bridge over the Houston Shipping Channel. Despite her obtaining money from you to prosecute environmental crimes by such companies, she prosecuted the protesters under a new felony “Obstruction of Critical Infrastructure” law that has been pushed through in states around the country by the fossil fuel industry and ALEC with the direct purpose of quashing First Amendment activity.
All of these incidents are meant to be not an exclusive list but simply illustrative of D.A. Ogg’s profound lack of concern for reform and misprioritization of funds. But perhaps the best example of D.A. Ogg’s failure to properly use the resources of her office in a manner that will truly benefit the entire Harris County community is that courts have dismissed a shocking 3,200 cases her office has filed due to a lack of probable cause—meaning these were cases that never should have been pursued by prosecutors, which may have even prevented some deportations. This was a 70% increase over the number of such unsupported prosecutions in 2015.
We are extremely troubled that she would waste taxpayer money filing these bad cases and then come to you asking for more money because her caseloads are too high.
In addition to these actions causing us deep concern about how she would use the personnel and resources of her office, D.A. Ogg continues to spout unsupported numbers and bad math.
In June, the Chronicle reported that “the attorney caseload figures used to justify the [February] request appear to overstate the office’s workload.” Then, while the study that you requested never materialized, a report suddenly appeared in August that concluded that Ogg’s office was short 104 prosecutors, a number many found suspiciously close to the 102 she requested in February. Ogg promptly touted the report’s findings.
Prominent criminal legal system scholars from around the country, however, among others, read the report and felt troubled enough by its deeply flawed methodologies and unsupported conclusions that they disseminated a letter enumerating the study’s flaws. It was then revealed that open records requests by a Houston Chronicle reporter seeking communications between the study’s authors and Kim Ogg were met with resistance and evasion.
In this latest request, D.A. Ogg has dropped her request to 58 prosecutors (which becomes 69 this year when you add in those she obtained over the summer). But her math once again does not add up. D.A. Ogg says that open cases in Harris County have increased 68% over four years and complains that her number of prosecutors has only grown by 20% over the same period. Her explanation for the 68% increase sounds simple: “As crime rates increase due to population growth, so does our workload.”
The problem with this is that over the past four years, the population of Harris County has only increased a little over two percent. So the number of cases being prosecuted in Harris County, according to Ogg, has increased by 30 times what it should have if it followed population growth. That explosion in prosecutions becomes even more troubling -- and Ogg’s assertions about crime rates even more perplexing -- when one realizes crime has gone down over the same period. The number of offenses in Harris County has dropped each year since 2015, with a 4.4% drop in Houston from 2017-18.
Rather than make the case for more prosecutors, Ogg’s recent request instead does the opposite, exposing that something is deeply flawed with Harris County prosecutions. Part of the explanation, as noted above has already come to light: she is prosecuting thousands of cases without probable cause. In doing so, she fails to recognize the devastating impact that her actions have on our communities, especially immigrants and communities of color.
In other words, not only is D.A. Ogg resisting things like bail reform that would decrease her caseloads and ease suffering and pressures on communities, but also she is engaging in practices that are needlessly and irresponsibly increasing prosecutions. Yet she comes to you once more asking you to trust her on faith and give her millions of dollars, with no plan or evidence of how it will make us safer, reduce racial disparities, or create more just outcomes.
That money could go to so many other areas that will actually make us safer, such as drug and mental health treatment, schools, indigent legal defense, and services that benefit our county’s most vulnerable and marginalized residents, including 1.2 million immigrants. We ask you to please reject D.A. Kim Ogg’s latest request. Harris County is on the verge of real progress. D.A. Ogg has proven too many times that she cannot be trusted to use taxpayer funds responsibly and in our county’s best interests. Please invest our hard-earned money where it can actually make a difference. Thank you.