Commissioners approve 7% budget increase, include plan for solving case backlog

HOUSTON – Harris County Commissioner's Court on Tuesday rejected District Attorney Kim Ogg's request to hire 102 prosecutors, disagreeing with Ogg's claim that more prosecutors would clear a backlog of cases waiting to be tried. 

Approximately 40,000 cases are pending in Harris County courts, according to the District Attorney's Office, and 335 prosecutors handle those cases, the District Attorney's Office said. 

Still, Harris County commissioner's voted 4-1, rejecting Ogg's budget request for fiscal year 2019-2020. Instead, Tuesday's vote was for a budget that includes a $5.8 million increase over the current year.

The approved budget was recommended by the county's budget management office. Along with a budget for the District Attorney's Office, commissioners approved a request to hire an outside consultant to help establish ways to reduce the case backlog without hiring new prosecutors. 

Harris County Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack voted "no" on the item, supporting Ogg's initial request.

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The District Attorney's Office had requested a $20 million budget increase. The money would have gone toward hiring 102 new prosecutors. 

"We can't do this job like this. We want a quality of life," said Vivian King, chief of staff for the Harris County District Attorney's Office, recounting what she said prosecutors have told her.

King said it was not unusual for a prosecutor from the District Attorney's Office to work an average of 70 to 80 hours per week. 

Others from the District Attorney's Office spoke, as well, at the Commissioner's Court hearing on Tuesday. 

Ogg maintained the additional prosecutors would have led to swift justice, clearing those charged with misdemeanors, for instance, from the caseload. 

Critics challenge that notion, claiming criminal justice reform and the hiring of additional prosecutors is an oxymoron. 

"We're turning Harris County into a police state," said Ashton P. Woods, a community activist with Black Lives Matter Houston.

More prosecutors would lead to more prosecutions, not fewer, Woods said. 

Bottom line: Both sides contend the county's criminal justice system is broken and needs to be fixed. They differ on how to fix it. 

That's the challenge going forward, according to KPRC 2 political analyst and former Harris County Judge Ed Emmett. 

"(Ogg has) got to find a way to move these cases along faster. And I find it ironic that a lot of people who say they're for justice don't remember the old saying, you know, justice delayed is justice denied," Emmett said. 

While commissioners approved a request for an outside consultant to study the matter, a consultant has not yet been hired. 

There also isn't a timeline yet at for when a study is expected to be completed. 

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said the county needs the quickest turnaround possible on a study to ensure the case backlog is addressed as soon as possible. 

"We have to figure out exactly what we need to do, not just for this office and the DA's office, but the criminal justice system as a whole," Hidalgo said. "The nation is watching. We are 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."

Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis proposed the hiring of an outside consultant to help the county draft a plan to reduce the case backlog. 

Ellis said, "We ask the budget management office to seek an outside consultant with this court to conduct a study to assess what strategies would be best for Harris County to consider for reducing our caseload backlog, including case management practices to establish time standards, changes to plea policies, expansion of pre-arrest diversion programs to folks facing drug possession, homeless mental health and anything else that budget management wants to include."

Ogg released the following statement:

"We will continue to fight every day to ensure that justice is done in every case for every crime victim, every defendant, and the community.

"Harris County must have a District Attorney’s Office with sufficient resources to ensure that all cases are resolved fairly and in a timely manner. As prosecutors, we wear many hats, but we have only one job to do, and we must always do it well: to see that justice is done in every single instance, in every single case."