Friday, October 25, 2019

The state of 'progressive prosecutors' in Texas

The article in The Atlantic titled "Texas prosecutor fights for reform" has a certain "Man Bites Dog" quality, which I suppose makes local news from Texas interesting enough for East and West coast media and muckety mucks to take notice. Not that John Creuzot's work in Dallas doesn't deserve attention. In Grits' view, he is the most confident, competent, and sure-footed of Texas' new crop of Democratic DAs. But at this point, the term "progressive district attorney" requires so many caveats that it should probably be discarded, at least in red states, until a few key benchmarks have been established and met.

When Kim Ogg of Houston, Mark Gonzalez in Corpus Christi, and Margaret Moore in Austin were elected DAs of their respective counties in 2016, there was a clutch of mostly national advocates and journalists, coupled with a few local electoral partisans, who pronounced them part of a new wave of "progressive prosecutors." Grits argued at the time that there was no such thing (and still largely thinks that's true).

Larry Krasner's election in Philadelphia changed things. His office produced a memo detailing new policies aimed at reducing incarceration rates that was much more daring and aggressively decarceral than any previous US prosecutor had ever suggested. (For a contemporary podcast discussion of Krasner's memo in context of Texas candidates, see here.) Soon, prosecutors in other states began running mimicking parts of Krasner's approach as well as expanding or exploring other decarceral programs.

In Texas, though, the decarceral efforts of our Democratic DAs have been much more modest.

Harris and Travis Counties have created special courts for state-jail felonies that have helped chip away at state-jail incarceration rates. Joe Gonzalez in San Antonio took a won't-prosecute stance on low-level pot possession (Ogg created a pretrial diversion program for pot.) And both Mark Gonzalez and Margaret Moore found themselves in the happy position to replace such embarrassingly bad prosecutors, they could look like an improvement just by avoiding overt misconduct and not drooling on themselves in public.

On bail reform, in particular, for the most part these prosecutors' positions are far from "progressive." And even if they are, as with Creuzot, judges, local criminal-defense attorneys, and other special interests have proven effective at throwing a monkey wrench into potential solutions.

Ogg in particular has chosen to pick fights with county commissioners, newly elected Democratic judges, reformers, journalists, and academics over every perceived slight, leaving herself ever-more frustrated and isolated. Most prominently, she attacked the pending bail-reform settlement and demanded the county radically increase her staff size without acknowledging how that would a) create disadvantages for underfunded indigent defense or b) run counter to decarceration goals. (Recently a group of scholars came out to criticize the methodology of a study her office promoted to justify the request for more staff.)

Creuzot was the first Texas DA to more comprehensively articulate his own decarceral agenda, sort of a Larry-Krasner-Lite, but whose pronouncements are peppered with "y'alls." His policies were more modest than, say, newly elected prosecutors in Philly, St. Louis, or Boston. Even so, there's no doubt Creuzot's positions were more concrete and his thinking about decarceration is the most-well-developed of any Lone-Star prosecutor. Indeed, his general election vs. a Republican incumbent essentially centered around which one of them would be more reform-minded.

By contrast, in Houston, some of the same reform voices who prematurely hailed Kim Ogg as a progressive in 2016 are calling for her replacement by Audia Jones. Margaret Moore last year asked local reformers to endorse her push to merge the District and County Attorney offices under her control, but refused to enact any of the reforms local advocates wanted in return. As a result, the merger didn't happen and she now faces a serious reform challenger in Jose Garza.

Going forward, if any of these insurgents win in the coming Democratic primaries, then the terrain will have shifted and "progressive" will no longer effectively serve as a synonym for "Democrat" in Texas when it comes to prosecutor elections, as seems to have been the case so far.

1 comment:

Gadfly said...

Ogg is about as much a Houston ConservaDem as Whitmire, in reality.