In Houston, Voters Send a Strong Message About Criminal Justice Reform

Ryan Holeywell and Leah Binkovitz | November 9, 2016

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Houston-area voters sent a powerful message about their desire for criminal justice reform Tuesday, ousting two incumbent Republicans and electing a pair of progressive Democrats to serve as Harris County Sheriff and District Attorney.

Gonzalez.

Gonzalez.

Sheriff Ron Hickman was defeated by Ed Gonzalez, a former Houston city councilmember and longtime cop. District Attorney Devon Anderson lost to Kim Ogg, a former prosecutor, defense attorney and head of Crime Stoppers.

Their election had a unifying theme: both candidates have pledged to enact criminal justice reforms, primarily by easing the burden on local jails and taking a less heavy-handed approach towards those who aren’t accused of violent crimes.

Ogg has pledged to avoid onerous punishment for low-level drug offenders and instead focus on prosecutions of violent and white-collar criminals. Gonzalez, meanwhile, has promised to prioritize education and training programs within the Harris County jail in order to reduce recidivism. He’s also expressed a desire to work with the DA’s office on implementing diversion programs to keep low-level, nonviolent offenders from filling jails.

“Our jail is overpopulated,” Gonzalez told Houston’s ABC-13 after his victory. “We need to find a way to reduce that.  It’s very costly, and frankly, ineffective.”

He also criticized a system that forces the indigent to remain in jail while pending trial, even if they’re eligible for bond, simply because they can’t afford to pay it.

Ogg.

Ogg.

Meanwhile Ogg — the first Democratic to be elected DA in Harris County in 36 years — touted a similar message.

“We’ve got to do something about our low-level offenders and the mentally ill who are filling jails,” she told ABC-13. “We’re going to have to divert them … and work with mental health officials.”

She touted the case for bail reform and also said she’d work to reform the way her office prosecutes marijuana offenses. The Houston Chronicle explains:

Of several big changes expected when Ogg takes office Jan. 1, the most significant is likely to be the end of jailing suspects in low-level, nonviolent drug cases. Ogg plans to implement what is essentially a ‘cite and release’ program that would see police officers ticket offenders caught with small amounts of marijuana. She also has campaigned on increasing transparency in police shootings and wants to ramp up prosecutions of burglars and white-collar criminals, in a bid to combat cartels and human trafficking.”

Gonzalez and Ogg are riding a wave of shifting public opinion about criminal justice. This year, the Kinder Houston Area Survey found that 64 percent of Harris County residents favored moving away from mandatory prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders. That was a 21-point increase since the last time the question was asked, in 2011.

Image via Kinder Institute.

Image via Kinder Institute.

Sandra Guerra Thompson, director of the Criminal Justice Institute at the University of Houston Law Center, said the election of the two progressives could have big implications.

Her “cite-and-release” program “would have enormous impacts on the jail population, and cost savings to taxpayers, but it needs to be done properly,” Thompson said. She also expressed optimism at the efforts towards bail reform in Harris County. “I am hopeful with her leadership and with the new Democratic judges in place that maybe we’ll see an end to the bail schedule and bail reform,” she said.

She said she sees a possible end to the sheriff’s office’s participation in federal immigration efforts as well. Gonzalez has been very critical of the federal 287(g) program, through which local law enforcement officials receive immigration enforcement authority.

“Right now the county is voluntarily cooperating with the federal government and has employees within the jail whose sole job is federal immigration enforcement,” Thompson said. “And that’s a voluntary relationship. I would foresee under Sheriff Gonzalez that practice being ended, but I don’t know what the federal government response would be to something like that.”

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