The agenda item introduced by Commissioner Adrian Garcia (D-Precinct 2) called for $1,365,000 in funding from the Public Improvement Contingency Fund in support of the 22 new positions “for the District Attorney’s Office to reduce the backlog of cases resulting from the employee workforce out sick with COVID-19.”
The positions will be effective from January 30 through July 30, 2021, and include 15 attorneys and seven administrative assistants.
Although a 2019 analysis from the Center for Justice Research determined that the Harris County district attorney’s office is significantly understaffed, Democrats on the commissioners court have mostly blocked previous requests for additional resources.
In a 3 to 2, party-line vote in 2019, commissioners rejected District Attorney Kim Ogg’s request for an additional 100 prosecutors, and instead moved to beef up the public defender’s office, increasing that budget by more than 90 percent. Later in 2019, the court did approve some extra staff to handle an investigation and prosecution of environmental offenders.
During the public comment period, numerous speakers, many identifying themselves as from the Texas Organizing Project or Texas Appleseed and at times reading identical statements, expressed opposition to providing any additional staff or funds to either the district attorney or sheriff’s department.
In introducing the request, Garcia clarified that he was concerned over a continuing backlog of cases and overcrowding at the county jail and that his request was due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This particular item is a direct [COVID-19] related item, this not funding the DA’s office just because we can,” Garcia explained. “This is addressing operations that have been directly impacted by [COVID-19]; 25 percent of her intake staff has been taken out of the equation of their operations.”
Garcia said they would be working with the budget office to see if funds could be reimbursed by CARES Act or FEMA funds.
He explained that intake at the district attorney’s office was part of the broader county criminal justice system and that a lack of adequate staffing could contribute to the overcrowding problem at the jail.
Commissioner Jack Cagle (R-Pct. 4) expressed support for the funds and explained the importance of adequately staffing all parts of the county’s justice system.
“There are folks who need to get out of jail because they are innocent. There are others who need to get out of our jail because they’re guilty and will be convicted and put in the state system.”
Without proper staff to both prosecute and defend cases, Cagle said those who are innocent are penalized since their cases could not be completed.
“Justice delayed, is justice denied,” said Cagle.
Commissioner Tom Ramsey (R-Pct. 3) said he had been visiting with Ogg and her staff about the problem and thanked Garcia for proposing the additional staff.
Commissioner Rodney Ellis (D-Pct. 1) queried Garcia and the budget director about whether the expenditure would be reimbursable and whether data regarding demographics of arrestees was being provided by the district attorney’s office.
County Judge Lina Hidalgo (D) expressed concern that the district attorney’s office had not been cooperating with PFM Group Consulting, a controversial group with which the county has contracted to conduct a review of the criminal justice system at a cost of nearly $2.9 million this year.
“The DA did not allow PFM to review the operations; they’ve not provided the detailed information to budget.”
Saying she wanted all expenditures to align with PFM recommendations and guidelines, Hidalgo said she supported a temporary staff increase, but she added language requiring budget management and the county’s justice administration department to evaluate the district attorney’s office backlog.
Vivian King, chief of staff for Ogg, joined the meeting to assert that the office had been fully cooperating with the budget management department and PFM to answer questions and provide data, although sometimes there were obstacles to providing information in the format requested by PFM.
David Eichenthal, managing director for PFM who elsewhere argues that local governments over-invest in law enforcement as a response to crime, said that King had been at meetings held with both PFM and the district attorney’s staff, but that the district attorney had not responded to requests.
King replied that she had not been at the meeting in question but that she was happy to talk to him.
The district attorney’s office has been drawn into controversy over felony suspects frequently released on personal recognizance or minimal bond amounts and who go on to commit additional crimes, including murder. Prosecutor requests for higher bond or no bond have been ignored by judges and magistrates in several instances, and in one case the district attorney took the unusual step of appealing to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to overrule a magistrate’s bond for a felony suspect.
Garcia’s motion, as amended by Hidalgo, passed unanimously.
The district attorney’s office expressed gratitude for the temporary addition.
“We are grateful for the unanimous support of commissioners,” said Director of Communications Dane Schiller. “We appreciate their help in our efforts as we work through these challenging times to keep the public safe and the justice system fair for everyone involved- crime victims, persons accused of crimes, and the community in general.”
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Holly Hansen is a freelance writer living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.