Against a backdrop of growing concern over crime, candidates for Harris County District Attorney are tackling tough questions about criminal justice reform and the role of prosecutors.
Since taking office in 2016, incumbent D.A. Kim Ogg (D) has worked to implement promised reforms on bail policy and diversion programs for some arrestees, especially for those with mental health issues. She has also been more aggressive in investigating officer-involved shootings and allegations of criminal activity within local law enforcement.
Ogg’s work has drawn criticism from both sides of the political aisle, and six candidates are vying to replace her in the 2020 elections.
In the upcoming Democratic Primary, Ogg will face these candidates:
- Audia Jones, a former Harris County Assistant District Attorney and self-proclaimed Socialist,
- Carvana Cloud, a former Harris County Assistant District Attorney,
- Todd Overstreet, former Harris County District Court Chief Prosecutor and Federal Prosecutor.
Three candidates have filed in the Republican Primary:
- Lori DeAngelo, a former Harris County Chief Prosecutor with 20 years of experience,
- Mary Nan Huffman, a former Montgomery County prosecutor and police officers’ union attorney,
- Lloyd Oliver, a local attorney who has repeatedly run unsuccessfully as a Democrat.
Democratic candidates aired their complaints about the incumbent and presented plans for additional reforms at a recent forum hosted by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
Jones, who has been endorsed by Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and the Democratic Socialists of America, called for decriminalizing marijuana entirely, decriminalizing possession of any drugs for personal use, and pledged to not to seek enhanced sentences for gang-related crimes.
Referring to the county jail as a “debtor’s prison,” Jones also said she would work to eliminate cash bail for many felony suspects, saying those individuals should not be held pre-trial since they had not yet been convicted.
At the ACLU forum, Carvana Cloud often sided with Jones, but was the only candidate there to decline a pledge to stop prosecuting prostitution and offenses related to “consensual sex work” since she said those were tools for combating human trafficking and compelled prostitution.
Accused of not fully supporting bail reform due to her expressed concerns over the terms of a 2019 bail settlement agreement, Ogg ardently defended her record.
She noted that her Misdemeanor Marijuana Diversion Program has reduced arrests for marijuana possession by 80 percent, and that in March of 2017, she had already directed prosecutors to seek pretrial release bonds for non-violent misdemeanors with exceptions for domestic violence and DWI.
“I am unapologetic about protecting your safety,” said Ogg. “As the top law enforcement official in Harris County I must work with 87 different law enforcement agencies, and every crime victim in the county whose rights are also legitimate; they are the only individuals in the justice system who have not agreed to participate.”
Ogg is endorsed by a slew of Democratic elected officials and Victory Fund, a gay and lesbian rights advocacy PAC, but lost the endorsements of the Houston GLBT Caucus and the Texas Organizing Project to Jones.
At the ACLU forum, Overstreet also expressed concerns over the impact of bail reforms. Like Ogg, he noted that decriminalizing certain activities was the responsibility of the legislature and that there were problems with overextending bail reforms.
“Our city is becoming less safe,” said Overstreet. “There’s been people who have been let out on bail, or no bail, or pretrial bail, who should never have been let out jail.”
All four Democrats said they would not seek higher bail based on a suspect’s immigration status. Jones pledged to add in-house counsel for illegal immigrants and to consider deportation implications in prosecutorial decisions.
Both Ogg and Overstreet said the D.A. must prosecute all suspects equally, but many in the ACLU audience booed Overstreet for saying he would not “refuse to prosecute just because they’re illegal.”
Overstreet and Republican Huffman have both been endorsed by the Houston Police Officers’ Union (HPOU).
None of the Republicans running attended the ACLU forum, but at other events voiced bail reform concerns and highlighted issues with Ogg’s administration.
At a candidate forum hosted by the Cherry Tree Republicans, DeAngelo noted that Ogg had fired 41 experienced prosecutors and that more than 100 had quit under Ogg’s leadership. She also claimed that Ogg had stopped recruiting from quality law schools nationwide and was currently only recruiting from Texas Southern University.
DeAngelo, who previously served as the Chief Prosecutor of the 208th District Court, said Ogg has wasted staffing positions by hiring politicians, such as former Houston City Councilmember Dwight Boykins, to serve in “community outreach” roles instead of hiring needed prosecutors for the county’s 22 district courts.
Huffman echoed DeAngelo’s staffing concerns, calling Ogg’s requests for additional prosecutors “disingenuous” since she has not fully staffed currently authorized positions.
Both Huffman and DeAngelo noted that misdemeanor bail reform is already mandated under the consent decree approved by a federal judge last year, but that the D.A. should fight back on felony bail reform.
“The misdemeanor consent decree is done, but what we’re headed to is that with felonies,” said Huffman. “What started in New York on January 1, gave us a dead body with a PR bond.”
DeAngelo agreed. “The D.A.’s office is not using the tools it has, that the legislature has given us to combat bail reform. They can actually file motions at D.A. intake to hold violent offenders at no bond, and to hold true habituals at no bond. That’s not being done.”
When asked what one policy she would immediately change if elected, DeAngelo said she would end Ogg’s Marijuana Misdemeanor Diversion Program.
“It is not up to the District Attorney to decide which laws she likes, and which laws should be enforced,” said DeAngelo. “That’s up to the Legislature. Every crime that is against the law will be prosecuted in my administration.”
Huffman answered that she would restore efforts to enhance sentences for habitual criminals.
“Why are we catering to criminals? These are the people that are getting out and committing the crimes again…One strike, two strikes, three strikes you’re free right now in Harris County? Shouldn’t be happening.”
DeAngelo and Huffman’s allegations coincide with a story from Channel ABC13 on Monday regarding murder suspect Gerald Washington who was released on bond and is now missing.
Huffman also stressed the need to restore the relationship between the district attorney’s office and law enforcement, which she says has been damaged by Ogg’s administration.
Some activists have expressed concern over Huffman’s ties to HPOU, where she has served as the union’s attorney representing officers in a variety of cases. A Republican precinct chair who preferred to remain unnamed said he worried Huffman might be reluctant to pursue officer-involved incident investigations.
DeAngelo told The Texan that while the current D.A. was overly “gung-ho in going after police,” she would promptly investigate officer-involved incidents and “go wherever the evidence leads.”
“Being either “pro-police” or “anti-police” is not acceptable. We must be “pro-public safety” first and foremost.”
In speaking with The Texan, Huffman also pledged to appropriately investigate police-involved allegations.
“The police are just people, and if they’ve been accused of criminal activity, we will investigate and prosecute appropriately.”
Although he will be listed on the Republican Primary ballot, Oliver has done little to actively campaign and did not attend either forum.
Holly Hansen is a freelance writer living in Cypress, Texas. 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.