Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday rejected District Attorney Kim Ogg’s request for a massive 31.7 percent budget hike that Commissioner Rodney Ellis and others feared would increase prosecution of low-level, nonviolent defendants. Instead, Commissioners Court went with the recommendation of the County’s Budget Management Department, which recommended a 7 percent increase for the District Attorney’s Office, which was higher than the 5 percent budget increase that most other offices and agencies received.
“We must invest our tax dollars in equitable reforms that will make our communities safer and our justice system more fair, efficient and effective for all people,” said Commissioner Ellis.
Commissioner Ellis and other court members felt Ogg’s proposal to hire an additional 102 prosecutors would have perpetuated a criminal justice system that for decades has relied on arrest, prosecution and incarceration for low-level, nonviolent offenses.
“For decades, our local justice system has used arrest and prosecution to over-criminalize poverty, homelessness, mental illness, prostitution, and substance use without addressing the root causes and these tough-on-crime strategies have failed our communities,” Commissioner Ellis said. “Lives have been destroyed, families have been torn apart and communities of color, especially, have lost multiple generations to mass incarceration and an unfair justice system. I’m unwilling to further invest in a broken system without clear evidence that this additional $25 million won’t perpetuate mass incarceration and racial and economic disparities in our justice system.”
Prior to today’s court meeting, Commissioner Ellis asked the District Attorney’s Office to provide more information on the caseload backlog, its causes and what reform-minded solutions such a budget increase would provide. His office never received a response to that inquiry.
“No one disputes that the caseload backlog is a problem. But without a clear understanding of all the underlying causes of the backlog, there was no way to know whether this drastic budget increase would provide the most effective and fair solutions because we don’t know what all is causing these issues or how to best solve them,” explained Commissioner Ellis.
During the budget discussion, Commissioner Ellis made a motion to review the county’s criminal justice system, including the underlying causes of the caseload backlog at the District Attorney’s Office, to identify effective strategies that will improve community safety, reduce inefficiencies, and increase fairness and equity.
“Looking ahead, we must invest in smart-on-crime reforms that promote the safety and well-being of all communities, divert people away from the criminal justice system and make our entire system more effective, efficient and fair for everyone. This review will help us do just that,” said Commissioner Ellis.
Photos: Concerned constituents gave testimony at Harris County Commissioner Court opposing the $25 million budget increase requested by the District Attorney’s Office.