After defeating Republican incumbent Devon Anderson at the polls, Democrat Kim Ogg is taking over the Harris County District Attorney's Office in a contentious time for criminal justice in Houston, in Texas, and frankly, in the United States. She will become the gatekeeper with the power to decide who belongs in the overcrowded Harris County Jail, the third-largest in the country, and will wield the power to rewrite policies that either strengthen or weaken punishment for those charged with low-level, nonviolent crimes.
And Ogg will take over just as a perfect storm brews for criminal justice reform here in Harris County, at every corner of the system. She takes over as the county, its misdemeanor judges and bail hearing officers face a lawsuit for allegedly failing to consider poor people's ability to pay bail, as the Constitution requires. She takes over as the county makes use of a prestigious $2 million grant to enact reforms intended to equalize the system for racial minorities, for the mentally ill and for the poor. And she takes over as the nationwide war on drugs continues to recede from prominence.
Ogg has repeatedly promised her supporters, throughout the campaign and during her victory speech, that "it’s a new day of justice in Harris County."
It's a romantic notion, sure — but what does that actually look like in practice? Here's what Ogg intends to do once she's at the helm of one of the largest DA's offices in the country:
The decriminalization of misdemeanor marijuana. To Ogg, arresting, charging and jailing a bunch of potheads caught with less than four ounces of weed is not only a massive time suck but a waste of taxpayer dollars. So she intends to stop prosecuting these cases. Ogg has said she believes all the resources currently used to slog pot-smokers through the courts and jails would be better used on combating violent crime: burglars, rapists, armed robbers. Ogg has estimated she could redirect $10 million of taxpayer dollars to locking up the criminals we should be worried about while at the same time saving Cheech and Chong from going to jail and losing their jobs. She also intends to stop prosecuting "trace cases," involving minuscule amounts of controlled substances such as cocaine.
As she told us in April: "We've created a class of repeat offenders, and by continuing to give them convictions for low-level crimes, we make them unemployable, un-houseable, and ripe for re-entering the criminal justice system. I want to end that self-perpetuating cycle.”
Increased transparency following police shootings. Following controversial officer-involved shootings over the past year, almost immediately, calls to release video footage rang out from Black Lives Matter and other local advocacy organizations, especially after the shooting of Alva Braziel. While Mayor Sylvester Turner acted swiftly in deciding to release what turned out to be inconclusive body-camera footage to some, Ogg has said that the current DA's office administration has not done enough to immediately respond to the public's concerns amid high-stakes internal investigations, particularly after officer-involved shootings.
Speaking on behalf of Ogg after she lost her voice on election night, spokesman Wayne Dolcefino said, "It's not a pro-cop or anti-cop anything — it's transparency. Kim strongly believes that videos of these kind of encounters need to be provided first to the family and then to the public."
Bail reform. It's been up for discussion for over a year now, as activist groups and legal watchdogs have turned up the pressure on criminal justice officials: Bail reform is absolutely essential in Harris County — but how? What does a new system look like, in which only dangerous criminals are jailed before trial and the presumed-innocent defendants, who are not a safety threat, are allowed to go home to their families and jobs without paying a price? That's the question that Ogg will play a crucial role in helping to answer in the coming months.
Ogg has said she wants to see judges issuing far more personal bonds and will issue directives to her prosecutors, urging them to agree to personal bonds in cases where defendants are not a public safety threat. Right now, only about 8 percent of defendants are lucky enough to receive one; meanwhile, roughly 75 percent of the people sitting in the Harris County Jail have yet to be convicted of a crime, and are there in many cases because they can't afford to get out.
Still, if Harris County loses the civil lawsuit it is facing over its bail system, which includes the use of a stringent bail schedule, imagining a whole new bail system is going to take some brilliant minds. And it's also going to take either somehow appeasing or standing up to a multi-million-dollar bail industry, one that donates thousands to sitting judges and the current district attorney, Devon Anderson, and one that profits from the socioeconomic discrepancy plaguing criminal justice across the country. It's an industry that Ogg has decried.
A crackdown on organized crime. Ogg, as the former director of Crime Stoppers and the former chief felony prosecutor in the DA's office, has got quite a bit of experience when it comes to going after gang members and violent criminals. She was also the City of Houston's first director of the Anti-Gang Task Force, and while it has since been considered a controversial practice, she also was the special prosecutor involved in organizing the first gang injunction in Harris County several years ago.
So it's no surprise, then, that when she gets in office she wants to launch a special division of prosecutors tasked with securing convictions against gang members. At the same time, Ogg has said she will not go to the lengths that Devon Anderson's prosecutors have gone to obtain convictions — most controversially by jailing a rape victim, something Ogg has vowed never to do.
"The use of victims' advocates is going to be something that is not just an aside; it's going to be part of a civic proposal," Dolcefino said. "She wants to create a special division devoted to sexual assault cases, and the people there will be trained to not only go after rapists but preserve the dignity of victims in a way that that has not been done."
Dolcefino said with a new Democratic sheriff, Ed Gonzalez, elected and a few new judges in the mix, Ogg is hoping her proposed reforms will be met with less pushback. He said Ogg's run for district attorney was not simply a campaign, but a mission. And if Ogg's victory speech Tuesday night is any indication of her commitment to that mission, then perhaps plenty of changes are in store.
"This is so personal to me. I just want you to know: I’m a hometown girl; I love Houston; I love our people;" Ogg said then. I believe in justice; I hate discrimination, and until the day I die I will be fighting for the things we all believe in. It’s called justice. It’s called justice for all."
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