From Bail to Mental Health, Harris County District Attorney Seeks Reform

October 27, 2017 by

Last week Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg held a press conference to announce policy recommendations – the culmination of her transition team’s work on reforming the Harris County criminal justice system.

These reports, or  “Community Action Plans” are put together with the help of over sixty volunteers who took a look at the current state of the county’s justice system and what reforms could be put in place to ensure a fair and equitable system for taxpayers.

The first topic, Bail Reform, comes at a time when the county is facing a class-action lawsuit over jailing defendants simply because they cannot afford bond. Though implementation of some reforms started ahead of the suit, the plaintiffs’ claim they weren’t being rolled out fast enough.

Ogg’s office has since filed an amicus brief in the lawsuit and the DA has been vocal about her support for bail reform telling the New York Times, “Eliminating economic status as the determining factor in depriving unconvicted individuals of their liberty is essential to the integrity of our justice system.”

As far as tangible actions, the office moved to hire a data analyst and program assessment staff member to measure the effect of policies being rolled out on individuals interacting with the system and to evaluate the results. “That includes the effects of bail reform and will address sustainability of major overhauls in justice system,” read the report.

The office has also increased mental illness training for some employees and is currently working with outside groups to implement best practices for dealing with mentally ill suspects.

Continuing on bail reform, the report also stated, “Besides a new low-risk assessment tool and bail schedule, public defenders are now present at every critical stage in representation, including all magistrate hearings on misdemeanor charges.”

Specifically targeting mental health, Ogg is seeking to increase mental health diversion and replicate programs implemented in  Miami-Dade County and King County (Seattle). “The replication of these existing models may require increased data collection which has begun in our mental health division under Denise Oncken.”

Interestingly, the group also looked into officer-involved shootings. With the increased usage of body cameras and other video devices, these shootings have received a lot of attention in recent years.

To make the process more open and transparent, Ogg immediately implemented a few grand jury reform items. In an effort to keep grand juries unbiased, the HCDAO will not invite jurors to do “ride-a-longs” with police or police trainings as part of the trial, police will not be able to address grand juries except in their capacity as a witness or subject of the inquiry, and prosecutors will present all relevant material and jurors will have the option to request more information.

In an effort to ensure law enforcement officers are treated as equally as any other defendant, Ogg’s team recommended they have access to pretrial diversion, where appropriate, those shot by police will no longer be referred to as “opponents”, and video of shootings will be made available to the public or media via request as long as it doesn’t hinder the investigation.

As for technology, the office is moving to automate public information and speaking requests, which under previous administrations’ websites were inaccessible. The group recommended, and Ogg supports, reducing the number and size of dockets in Harris County courts.

Ahead of the recommendation roll out, Ogg has been advocating her own reforms like increasing diversion for mental health and low-level drug cases, as well as removing charges on trace cases. Ogg intends on having the recommendations fully implemented by the conclusion of her final term, if that is the case, those in the Harris County justice system will see an entirely different system than the one that existed at the start of her term.


About the Author

Charles operates the Houston office for Empower Texans/Texans for Fiscal Responsibility.