Harris County's bail system was declared unconstitutional, but reform has been tied up in court for years. While the Harris County Commissioners Court has finally agreed to a proposed settlement, the deal remains up in the air, following an objection filed by the Harris County District Attorney's Office. News 88.7 sat down with DA Kim Ogg to ask her about her concerns.
Q: Why did you feel the need to file an amicus brief opposing the proposed bail reform settlement?
A: Well, in March of '17, shortly after being elected, I stepped forward not as a party [to the bail lawsuit] but as the representative of an institution, the DA's office and prosecutors, to support bail reform. And as a local criminal justice leader, I took a lot of political arrows for that support. I still support bail reform, but this proposed settlement is not bail reform that adequately protects the public. There's two reasons we have bail: 1) to get the person back into court after they've been released, 2) to make sure the public is safe. So, I had to look at this proposal through the eyes of somebody other than the criminal defendant, and it's an extremely slanted proposed settlement that really prioritizes their convenience over anybody else's interest – whether it's the victims or the community itself or the prosecutors and law enforcement who have to bring these cases against them.
Q: What do you see as a fair bail reform?
A: I see that the system that's been crafted as a result of this lawsuit...that misdemeanor offenders are not awaiting their trial in jail because they can't afford to get out. I see everybody being released on PR [personal recognizance] bond. In fact, I see too many people being released on PR bonds...For low-level, non-violence misdemeanors, I agree, this is appropriate, and I support that...but we see judges right now letting dangerous misdemeanor offenders out – domestic violence abusers, pimps, people who stalk folks, DWI offenders – and we see those individuals go out and commit additional crimes, only to be taken back in front of the courts and given another PR bond. This endangers the public. So as the chief prosecutor in Harris County, I think it’s incumbent on me to make sure that any proposed settlement, especially one that’s going to be enforceable for seven years, include provisions that protect the public.
Q: How do you strike a balance between personal recognizance and the need to protect the public?
A: Right now, the only time I urge our prosecutors to ask for high bail is when an offender has committed a dangerous crime and presents a high risk, a threat to the public or is a flight risk. We agree to PR bonds on all the low-level misdemeanors that were the original point of the lawsuit. So, I did what I supported. We stopped trying to hold people in jail simply because they were poor when they were accused of a low-level crime. But securing somebody's reappearance in court, trying to protect their neighbors or the victim from them, these are legitimate concerns for prosecutors to bring...I think they need to go back to the drawing board. We simply suggested to the court that they hold open meetings and hearings and hear from crime victims and law enforcement about this other perspective that was not included in this $97 million proposal, all of which funds interests of the defendant, of people accused of crimes. There's just no fairness in it for victims, for cops, or for prosecutors.
Q: You've expressed concerns about the level of overwork for your prosecutors. How have you been dealing with that since your request to the Harris County Commissioners Court for 102 more prosecutors was denied? How is that affecting your ability to try cases?
A: [W]e are understaffed and underfunded...Like any good lawyer, just because I'm told no the first time doesn't mean I won't ask again and again. And as a result of those asks, we have won the battle for additional environmental prosecutors, additional civil rights prosecutors to look into police, especially their shootings – and lately this Harding Street drug raid, where we charged two officers with murder and tampering with government documents. So, I think when we can present a special and well-established need, we've seen the commissioners respond positively to those requests. But to impose this new bail system, where $97 million will be spent over the next seven years – basically giving defendants the opportunity to reschedule their cases at any time regardless of the problems that that poses for witnesses or victims or prosecutors or cops – it's just unfair. You can't just fund one side of the equation and expect justice to be the result.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.