Harris County

Organizers Protest Harris County DA Plan To Use Private Lawyers As Prosecutors

“More prosecutors means more prosecutions,” critics say. But Kim Ogg’s office says the protesters are spreading misinformation.

Ed Castillo/Houston Public Media

Organizers on Wednesday protested Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg’s office for a program that would allow private lawyers to prosecute misdemeanor cases, after the county denied Ogg’s previous requests to fund new staffers.

Under the program, announced Monday, four prominent Houston law firms will provide 12 new recently graduated civil lawyers to help tackle low-level misdemeanor cases, freeing up resources for the DA’s office without cost to taxpayers.

The move comes after Ogg was twice denied requests to hire more prosecutors, first asking for 102 and then lowering her request for funding to 58 new staff members.

About 20 activists outside the DA’s office Wednesday — representing the Texas Organizing Project, Black Lives Matter Houston, Texas Advocates for Justice, and the Texas Civil Rights Project — said the DA was circumventing the process by taking on the 12 new lawyers, and argued in part that the county should not be working with private firms.

“These lawyers are getting checks from law firms that are not accountable to the public,” said Mary Moreno of the Texas Organizing Project. “You’re accountable to whoever pays you.”

Florian Martin/Houston Public Media
Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg at a press conference.

At issue is whether those additional resources will lead to a higher incarceration rate in Harris County. Ogg’s office on Wednesday said the new prosecutors would only target Class C misdemeanors, and no defendants would be jailed under the program. A spokesman also said similar programs were already in use in Chicago, Philadelphia, and other cities across the country.

“DA Ogg has kept thousands out of the criminal justice system with initiatives like the misdemeanor marijuana and mental health diversion programs, so it's disappointing to see political activists spread misinformation,” said DA spokesman Michael Kolenc.

But critics argued Wednesday that the move frees up existing staff to prosecute more cases. They also expressed concern over the impact more prosecutors would have on people of color. A recent report from Texas Advocates for Justice found that black people made up 45% of bookings in Harris County Jail, despite making up just 19% of the population.

“More prosecutors means more prosecutions,” said Dr. Henry Price, a pastor in Sunnyside. “And that means more black and brown people behind bars.”

One of Ogg’s opponents in the 2020 Democratic primary, Carvana Cloud, was also critical of the move, saying on Twitter it “makes no sense.”

Ed Castillo/Houston Public Media
Ogg has come under fire from progressive groups in recent months, who have criticized the DA for her opposition to bail reform and her office’s use of the death penalty, in addition to the push to hire more prosecutors. Some of the groups who once endorsed the DA, like the Texas Organizing Project, have instead backed one of Ogg’s other primary opponents, Audia Jones.

Among Ogg’s promised reforms was a promise to create diversion program for many low-level drug offenders and people with mental illness, two areas she has made progress on. Her office’s marijuana diversion program sent more than 10,000 people accused of misdemeanor drug offenses to a drug education class rather than charging them with a crime, according to her campaign. And Ogg successfully pushed for the creation of a mental health diversion center her campaign said was already treating 2,200 people.

She also promised more law enforcement oversight, and has worked to review cases in which her office believes an incarcerated person could be innocent. Most notably, Ogg is reviewing 69 convictions in connection with former Houston police officer Gerald Goines, on trial for murder after a deadly botched raid of a home in Pecan Park. Two people have already been cleared.

But the DA’s critics say she has not done enough, and that the new program is misguided.

“District Attorney Kim Ogg should be focused on implementing long-promised reforms to make all communities safer and diverting people from entering an already-overwhelmed criminal justice system,” read a statement from Sarah Labowitz, policy director for the ACLU of Texas. “Ogg's pro bono prosecutor program does the opposite by expanding the government's capacity to pursue misdemeanors. There are plenty of other pro bono opportunities for lawyers of all levels of experience to provide services to those who cannot afford representation.”

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