Instead of allocating $20.6 million to fund 102 additional prosecutor positions as requested by Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg, Harris County Commissioners Court opted for a $5.8 million budget increase for the office and asked for a comprehensive study of Harris County’s criminal justice system Feb. 12.
According to Ogg’s budget proposal, presented during the county’s fiscal year 2019-20 budget hearings in January, the main goal of the additional funding was to ease prosecutors’ caseloads. According to the proposal, in 2018 the Harris County DA’s office filed 108,773 criminal cases staffed by 255 trial prosecutors; the recommended staffing of trial prosecutors for the 2018 caseload is 522 prosecutors.
Several prosecutors with the Harris County DA’s office spoke during the Feb. 12 Commissioners Court meeting advocating for the additional funding.
“The average person … is averaging 127 hours [of work]every two weeks,” said Nathan Beedle, misdemeanor chief for Harris County DA’s office. “If they were to work 10 days straight, working 24 hours a day, they couldn’t get all of their tasks done. You cannot function and do your job properly without the correct resources.”
Prosecutors also asserted heavy caseloads on overworked prosecutors have a negative domino effect on victims and the accused alike. Assistant DA Daniel Malik said on any given day, he has roughly 20 to 30 cases on his court’s docket for an average of 100-150 cases each week.
“I have seen and know the difference a well-prepared prosecutor can make in someone’s life, whether it’s a victim or an accused,” Malik said. “Do [the victims and accused]not deserve the best out of those tasked with gathering the evidence and prosecuting their cases? Do they not deserve the time and attention from us at the DA’s office who are tasked with making sure their rights are protected? If you allow us to have more ADAs in our office, we will be able to do that far more efficiently and in that, our home will be better served.”
However, several Harris County residents and representatives form advocacy groups such as Texas Organizing Project spoke in opposition of the additional funding, asserting more prosecutors would mean more convictions.
“The topic that concerns me is the DA’s request for an additional 102 prosecutors at a price tag of around [$20 million],” said Deidre Scott, a representative with Texas Organizing Project. “If you need more prosecutors, that means you want to put more people in jail, and that’s totally contradictory to the platform [Ogg] ran on.”
Other opponents advocated for the money to be spent in other areas to proactively relieve the criminal justice system.
“I’m in opposition of the DA’s request for the $20 million to expand prosecutor staff,” said Diana Williams, an organizer for Texas Advocates for Justice. “I feel that the moneys asked for to add to the DA’s staff can be spent on other social services needed to keep people out of the criminal justice system altogether—substance abuse treatment, mental health treatment, education, job and housing assistance.”
After much discussion during the public hearing, County Judge Lina Hidalgo suggested offering the DA’s office a 7 percent budget increase of $5.8 million and requested the budget management department seek outside consultants to aid with a comprehensive study of they county’s criminal justice system.
“What I’m hearing is … additional prosecutors are not the only way and certainly not the most cost-effective way to decrease prosecutor caseloads,” Hidalgo said. “We need to make sure that we get the … caseloads down quickly—I recognize that. But that being said, we shouldn’t rush into it. $20 million is an increase that’s real people that we cannot then take back. We have a fiscal responsibility to the citizens and residents of Harris County.”
In a 4-1 vote, the court directed the Harris County Budget Management Department to put together a request for a proposal for a comprehensive study of Harris County’s criminal justice system looking at strategies to reduce caseload backlog as well as case management best practices, changes in plea policies and possible expansion of prearrest diversion programs.
“We’re facing an important moment—Harris County is,” Hidalgo said. “The nation is watching, and we’re facing a moment in which we can look at all the pieces that fit into the criminal justice system and figure out how they fit together. [A study would allow us to] look at this process holistically and make these financial decisions responsibly.”
The item will be brought back to the court for further consideration at a future Commissioners Court meeting.