A Look Back at Harris County's Big Year in Criminal Justice — and Lawsuits
Anderson announcing new diversion programs for low-level drug offenders in January.
As ye olde saying goes, the wheels of justice move slowly — but at least in Harris County this year, somebody must have kicked the donkey.
This year was full of criminal justice reform proposals — and also criminal justice lawsuits. It was full of scandals that controlled political campaigns, and full of candidates like District Attorney-elect Kim Ogg and Sheriff-elect Ed Gonzalez who ran on platforms of "culture change." What we're left with is a whole lot of promises from new faces, as-yet unfulfilled reform proposals from old ones — and a really big bill for taxpayers as the county defends itself against lawsuits concerning bail reform and equal protection for poor people.
Justice isn't exactly moving any faster. But at least it's moving.
Here's a look back at the year's ten most important criminal justice stories, in chronological order, that affect us all in one way or another.
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1. Outgoing District Attorney Devon Anderson's diversion programs for people charged with drug and non-violent crimes. Announced the first week in January, Anderson's diversion programs sought to offer treatment and rehab to people who need help more than they do punishment. After realizing that drug offenders had a 75 percent recidivism rate, Anderson said, “Locking people up isn't doing anything. All it's doing is costing us money.” The programs included Felony Pretrial Intervention, which offers one year of probation and rehab to repeat drug offenders caught with less than a gram of a controlled substance, first-timers caught with less than four grams, third-time shoplifters and fourth-time prostitution offenders. If those offenders successfully complete their probation and treatment programs, prosecutors will dismiss the charges. Her successor, Kim Ogg, is expected to improve and expand Anderson's policies, as well as institute more diversion programs of her own.
2. Harris County won a $2 million grant to reform its criminal justice system. In what was likely criminal justice officials' proudest moment of the year, in April, the MacArthur Foundation awarded the county big bucks in exchange for their sweeping reform proposals. The overall plan is to reduce the jail population by 20 percent over the next three years through several key changes, which include Anderson's diversion programs cited above. One of the most important ways: Judges are expected to award more personal bonds to people charged with low-level crimes and who are not a public safety threat; a new objective risk-assessment the county will soon use is expected to help. Diverting mentally ill people — taken to jail oftentimes for petty offenses that are tied to their illness — and connecting them with services is also a key goal.
3. The county got a little closer to offering people defense attorneys at bail hearings. While criminal justice officials said in their MacArthur proposal that they wanted to offer mentally ill people defense counsel at bail hearings, the question became, why not all people? For well over a year, Harris County Chief Public Defender Alex Bunin has championed this reform as judges mulled how it would even be possible. (Short answer: It is.) The reform is key, University of Houston law professor Sandy Guerra Thompson told us this year, because attorneys would be able to advocate for a personal bond, lower bond or diversion opportunities for defendants so that they don't have to sit in jail and lose their job before trial. Besides, prosecutors are present at these hearings — but defendants are often instructed to not even talk. While Anderson had told us in a sit-down interview in April that judges had agreed to implement the big change, it has not yet materialized, and it is unclear why.
4. But maybe the biggest lawsuit of the year, calling the county's bail system unconstitutional, has something to do with it. In May, the national organization Civil Rights Corps swooped in and sued the county over its bail system on behalf of all indigent misdemeanor defendants. Attorneys argued that, by adhering to a strict bail schedule, magistrates' alleged failure to consider people's ability to pay bail at that first bail hearing violates the Constitution. And it in turn leads to nonviolent, low-level defendants' losing their jobs, their homes or scholarships, and their overall stability just because they cannot afford to pay their way out of jail, attorneys say.
Just last Friday, U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal denied the county's motion to dismiss the case. Meaning that, if the plaintiffs end up winning, we could be seeing a major overhaul of the money bail system not just in Harris County but also in other jurisdictions across the nation that may look to follow the third-largest county's lead. So the suit is a big deal. Both Ogg and the new sheriff in town, Ed Gonzalez, have also pledged bail reform; Gonzalez is no longer a party to the case in his personal capacity (Rosenthal dismissed it specifically against the sheriff and the county judges in their personal, but not professional capacities, and kept the county and bail hearing officers as defendants as well), but he will surely be a big player at the table once officials are ready to draft those reforms. And you can pretty much bet on defense attorneys at bail hearings being a part of it.
5. Then there was the biggest scandal of the year: the story of the jailed rape victim. Do we even need to recap the details? The story of Jenny, a mentally ill rape victim who was held in jail for 27 days so prosecutors could secure her testimony against her rapist, basically dominated the airwaves from July to election night. And probably had a lot to do with Anderson's crushing defeat, after Ogg used the scandal against Anderson at every opportunity. Jenny, who was bipolar and schizophrenic and who has since sued the county, had a mental breakdown on the stand — then said she would run away and never return to finish testifying. After the lead prosecutor, Nick Socias, could find nowhere else to take Jenny before trial once she was discharged from the hospital — including her mother's home — he says jail was his only remaining choice. Here is his whole side of the story. But if you read his side, also read Jenny's mother's side next. Sources have confirmed to the Houston Press that Ogg has fired Socias.
6. The year's silver medalist in criminal justice scandals: the Precinct 4 evidence destruction. In February, Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman discovered that the property room manager, Corporal Chris Hess, destroyed more than 1,340 pounds of mostly drug evidence without obtaining a court order granting him permission to destroy it. Worse: Herman had reason to believe Hess had wrongfully destroyed more than 21,000 pieces of evidence since 2007, putting more than 1,100 criminal cases in jeopardy. Yet despite knowing of the major snafu since at least March, District Attorney Devon Anderson did not instruct trial prosecutors to stand down on the cases and stop offering plea deals, or alert the defense bar about the evidence issues, until August. Once again: Ogg slammed Anderson for this scandal relentlessly. A grand jury declined to indict Hess on any criminal charges last week, though it is unclear if Ogg will reopen the investigation.
7. Election Night: Ogg and Gonzalez boot Anderson and Sheriff Ron Hickman from office. The change in power has sweeping implications for Harris County. While Anderson and Hickman had said throughout their tenures that they were committed to reform, Ogg and Gonzalez showed an unmatched aggressiveness and urgency for criminal justice reform that voters apparently bought at the polls. Plus, they basically agree on everything — including decriminalizing misdemeanor marijuana. See our story on their big ideas here.
8. Gilbert Cruz's wrongful arrest and imprisonment lawsuit against Harris County. Police agencies are sued for a number of reasons every week — but Cruz's lawsuit, filed December 5, is important to highlight for a number of reasons. From the moment he was arrested to the moment his case was dismissed, Cruz's story is illustrative of many of the inequities attorneys allege exist for poor people in Harris County. Although the interfering with the duties of a public servant charges were ultimately dropped, Cruz spent more than two and a half months in jail because he could not afford to pay a $3,500 bond. For some reason, he was also not even present at his own bail hearing, where, in theory, he could have asked for a lower bond or personal bond. Refusing to take a plea deal, Cruz lost his job and his car to repossession while waiting in jail for the case to be dismissed. See our original story on Cruz here.
9. Overcrowded Harris County Jail led to delays in inmate transfers from the city jail...leading to delays in probable cause hearings for hundreds...leading to another lawsuit. In September, the Houston Press reported that more than a thousand people were stuck waiting longer than 48 hours to be transferred to the Harris County Jail during July and August. That's a problem for a number of reasons, attorneys told us: People don't see a judge until they get to county — and the Constitution requires that they see that judge within 48 hours. Sheriff's office spokesman Ryan Sullivan told us the delays were due in part to overcrowding at the jail. But the city ended up getting sued this month because, as Texas Fair Defense Project Executive Director Rebecca Bernhardt told us, the onus is on HPD to release people from jail if the 48-hour limit has passed. This mostly affects poor people who cannot afford to pay bail, Bernhardt said.
10. Ogg prepares to fire dozens of prosecutors. Now probably known as The Grinch in the halls of the courthouse, Ogg announced December 16 that she "would not invite" 37 prosecutors back to the DA's office. Almost all were in leadership positions. Some had track records tainted by one or multiple ethical lapses (see our story on one such lapse here; multiple sources confirmed the prosecutor was fired); some did not. While Anderson said that the move would "endanger" the citizens of Harris County, Ogg called Anderson's statement "irresponsible."
In explaining the firings, she said: “Because the district attorney's job is to be the guardian of justice and to seek justice over convictions, I pledged that we would not have a win-at-all costs mentality, that we would prize fairness and transparency and equality,” she said. “And the leadership decisions that I made are directed to that view."
In any case, looks like a new era of criminal justice is about to begin in 2017 — or as soon as those lawsuits are settled.
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