JudicialLocal NewsHarris County District Attorney Warns of Secretive Process for Appointing Magistrates

District Attorney Kim Ogg warned Texas senators of a secretive process for appointing magistrates who set bail bonds and that Harris County courts had quietly stopped recording bail hearings.
July 15, 2022
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While praising the success of new laws regulating bail bond practices, Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg is asking for state legislators to require further transparency and accountability to bond-setting practices.

Ogg, along with Harris County First Assistant District Attorney David Mitcham, testified before the Texas Senate Committee on Finance earlier this week regarding the impact of Sen. Joan Huffman’s (R-Houston) Senate Bill (SB) 6, also known as the Damon Allen Act.

“The report about crime in Harris County is that violent crime remains way too high, especially the homicide rate,” said Ogg. “But we are pleased to report with cautious optimism that the Damon Allen Act has been a helpful measure in reducing the crime committed by repeat violent offenders out on multiple bonds.”

Named after a state trooper murdered by a suspect out on bond in 2017, the Damon Allen Act prohibits the release of suspects on Personal Recognizance (PR) bonds if charged with certain violent crimes such as Capital Murder, Aggravated Kidnapping, Aggravated Sexual Assault, Aggravated Human Trafficking, and Deadly Assault on a Law Enforcement Officer. The law went into effect in December 2021.

In the presentation, Ogg and Mitcham included charts showing that the number of violent offenders granted PR bonds in Harris County skyrocketed from 239 in 2018 to 1,283 in 2021. However, since the enactment of SB 6, this year only 118 violent suspects have been released on PR bonds with the 2022 projected total falling to 236.  

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They also demonstrated that in 2021 the number of offenders out on two to four bonds jumped from 699 in 2018 to 3,595 in 2021, while the number of offenders out on eight or more felony bonds increased from zero in 2019 to 49 in 2021. Both categories are expected to fall in 2022 based on post-SB 6 trends.

However, the two sounded the alarm on transparency and accountability regarding the unelected magistrates, or “hearing officers,” who are often tasked with setting bonds.

Mitcham cited the recent case of a suspect charged with felony Terroristic Threat for telling Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) over the phone that he and other Republican legislators should be killed with either a “bullet to the face,” or a “brick to the skull.” In that case, although the district attorney’s office requested a $250,000 bond, magistrate Cheryll Harris Diggs released the suspect on a personal bond that required no payment whatsoever and did not require him to see a judge.

“Just ‘Right this way, sir; wait, you forgot your brick,’” quipped Mitcham. 

Ogg also alleged that some of the appointed magistrates were violating the requirements of SB 6 by issuing PR bonds in felony cases of Driving While Intoxicated or domestic violence without involving the elected criminal court judge.

In a bombshell revelation, Ogg also explained that Harris County had suddenly stopped recording bail hearings without notice.

“So these decisions are not made with the prosecutor present, nor the defense counsel present. They’re made by hearing officers in the privacy of their offices,” said Ogg who urged the legislature to make video recordings of bail hearings “mandatory” and available to the public.

Ogg noted that her office had few options for contesting or complaining about a magistrate’s bail decisions and that her office could not even get information from the Harris County court system about how such hearing officers were selected.

“It’s not that I haven’t tried to find out,” said Ogg, who explained her office had only been told a panel of nine county criminal court judges selected the magistrates. “Even the names of who sits on that committee are not willingly released.”

Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) added that the commissioners court had also voted 3 to 2 along partisan lines for a new policy that prohibited conducting background checks on new hires prior to an offer of employment which would also apply to magistrates.

The Harris County Office of Court Management did not respond to an email request for information in time for publication, and the county’s online directory does not list any names or contact information. 

Bettencourt also thanked Ogg and Mitcham for their efforts in 2020 to work with officials in both parties to thwart an attempt from Judge Lina Hidalgo to release more than 4,000 violent suspects from the Harris County jail system due to COVID-19 concerns.

“I submit for the record that release of 4,000 people would have set off a ‘crime bomb’ in Harris County and it was a bipartisan group of people that stopped it,” said Bettencourt.

In answer to a question from Huffman regarding the suspects detained at the county jail, Mitcham said those held in the jail were there for a “good reason” with 5,011 being charged with aggravated assault or sexual assault.

“In Harris County, if you’re in jail for a joint of marijuana you’d have to tunnel inside because they’re given every opportunity.”  

While Huffman lamented that SB 6 did not have enough enforcement mechanisms for uncooperative criminal courts, she vowed to add “teeth” in the upcoming session.

Ogg also told the panel she would support a state constitutional amendment that would allow judges to hold certain suspects accused of a violent or sexual offense or of continuous trafficking of persons without bail; a measure that failed to pass the Texas House with the required two-thirds margin in 2021.  

In addition to offering bail guidelines, SB 6 also created a statewide Public Safety Report System (PSRS) to provide magistrates with a suspect’s complete criminal history before setting bail or release conditions, but Megan Lavoie of the state Office of Court Administration advised the committee that not all Texas counties had begun to participate since launch in April 2022 and that participation in urban counties seemed low. 

In her final remarks, Ogg added that the district attorney’s office was “woefully under-resourced,” noting that other major urban cities around the country had two to three times as many lawyers to prosecute cases.  

Ogg has repeatedly  sparred with Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo over funding for prosecutors, and in a recent commissioners court vote to add funds to the district attorney’s office, Hidalgo abstained and accused Ogg of “political theater.”

Harris County has expanded the Public Defender’s Office providing defense to suspects, and expanded courts, but has been reluctant to add prosecutors to help address the criminal case backlog.

“I am telling you, with 138,000 cases and around 350 prosecutors I’m lucky to get through the day without a dangerous person being released,” warned Ogg.

“Our Harris County residents who vote in all parties are sick of this and they need help.”

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Holly Hansen

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.