Friday, September 03, 2021

Politics explains oddities and strange bedfellows in Harris County bail debate

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg issued a 56-page report disputing the findings of federal bail monitors overseeing the settlement agreement between plaintiffs and the county.

Her arguments are so disingenuous, it's a bit tiresome to go through them for rebuttal. But since the Houston Chronicle editorial board recently anointed themselves the DA's PR agents, it's worth at least pointing out her most egregious misstatements. 

The biggest one is a common misrepresentation that you rarely see people claim in writing; it's always something whispered behind the scenes, until now. Ogg claimed: 
“Bail reform” has not been confined to misdemeanors, but has been implemented, in practice, for felony defendants at every level, even repeat violent offenders charged with some of Harris County's most notorious and deadly crimes, including, but not limited to murders and capital murders.
This is inarguably, factually, a lie. Not an overstatement. Not an alternative point of view. Not a difference of opinion. A bold-faced lie by someone who should know better. It's something opponents of bail reform say over and over, but when you dig into the stories, the person inevitably paid cash to get out. The Houston Chronicle looked at more than 200 murders committed by people out on bail since 2013. Less than 1% involved someone out on personal bond.

Regardless, over and over we see personal bonds blamed for crimes committed by people who paid to get out. On the floor of the Texas Senate this summer, Joan Huffman told her colleagues during the first special session that five people who were out on bond had been charged with murders in Houston since that body had adjourned. But it turned out, none of them were out on a personal bond. All of them had paid to be released and their cases wouldn't be affected by the bill. 

By contrast, misdemeanor bail reform involved the use of personal bonds, and misstatements like this are why the Legislature focused on banning them. But that won't affect "repeat violent offenders charged with some of Harris County's most notorious and deadly crimes." It's just not true, no matter how often it's repeated, including by Republicans I respect.

Ogg's central argument is that the number of crimes committed by people out on bail is increasing in Houston. Which is true -- and also far more people are currently awaiting trial than just a few years ago. She frames the discussion in a way that elides that key fact, knowledge of which might lead to different conclusions. Her key "findings" were presented as follows:
  • Re-offending by criminal defendants who have been released on bail is up.
  • Bond failures by criminal defendants are up.
  • Violent offenses committed by defendants free on bail is up.
As an improv comic might say, "Yes, and ..."

None of that is because Houston judges are hesitant to jail people. 

Here's what's really going on, and anybody who's not focused on these specific problems isn't shooting straight with you about wanting to reduce crimes by people out on bail: In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, flooded courthouses created a court backlog that increased the number of people out on bail three-fold, from a little over 30,000 people on bail to more than 90,000, reported the Houston Chronicle recently. COVID exacerbated these delays, while the latest COVID spike has heightened pressure to decarcerate local jails as a growing public health imperative

Harris County's criminal case backlogs could take years to work through unless, as Elizabeth Rossi and Amanda Woog suggested earlier this week on Grits,  the District Attorney begins using her discretion to dismiss broad classes of lower-level cases en masse.

Until then, one would expect the number of crimes committed by people on bail to increase as long as the number of people on bail is increasing.

That said, here's one more datapoint in defense of the federal monitors Ogg is ostensibly criticizing. By the data in her report, the number of crimes committed by this cohort (people out on bail) increased LESS than did the total number released pretrial. So she's complaining that the numerator in a fraction went up without telling you the denominator went up even more. I realize some people go to law school because they're not good at math, but even in that context, this is a little extreme. Her whole memo is based on such preconceptions.

In fact, there's evidence that, faced with a significant problem of the number of people out on bail tripling in a short period of time, judges did a pretty good job of vetting cases. Since the number of people out on bail tripled but the number of crimes committed by that cohort increased less than that, in aggregate, judges seem to have been making the best public-safety oriented decisions they could in response to a bad situation. 

In Texas politics, however, no good deed ever goes unpunished.

Grits believes the DA's complaints and indeed, the entire Texas bail-reform debate, can't be understood outside of a highly politicized context. Between County Judge Lina Hidalgo (who hasn't approved Ogg's open-ended budget requests) and recently elected Democratic Houston judges, some of whom supported her more progressive primary opponents last go round, Ogg and the governor find themselves, at least in the short term, with common enemies. I'm not saying it's planned; more like she's taking potshots, looks up, and all of a sudden she and the Governor are shooting at the same targets. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, etc..

Regardless, there's no way for Harris County to incarcerate its way out of court backlogs. It's a practical impossibility and from a perspective of responsible governance, absurd to demand it. But that's the simplistic vision of "justice" and "safety" that Ogg, Andy Kahan, and Governor Abbott would have you buy into.

If Ogg were working with other Harris County officials to problem solve by getting rid of the backlog, judges might give more credence to her requests for higher bail on actual "repeat violent offenders." And perhaps she'd get a more welcoming reception in her budget asks at the commissioners court. 

But some prosecutors believe it's never their place to negotiate. They see their role as either "I get my way or I'll fight you." That's what we're seeing with Kim Ogg, and it's a severe disappointment.


  1. Looks like Harris Co should have elected a Democrat DA instead of a Republican one.

  2. Grits' evidence that Ogg's claim is "inarguably" a lie is that "less than 1% involved someone out on personal bond." But of course, "less than 1%" is not zero. Nor does the fact that some "inevitably paid cash" counter her claim; the amount of cash required could still be attributable to "bail reform".

  3. Greg Summerlin9/06/2021 02:58:00 PM


    In Harris County, it is a fact that some of our Criminal Court District Judges have been repeatedly releasing violent, felony defendants from jail on multiple bonds, including relatively low bonds and PR bonds. This practice has been well documented by the local media, especially Channel 26 in their "Breaking Bond" investigative series. With the violent crime rate surging and some judges blatantly disregarding public safety, I think most moderate Democrats actually support SB6. Violent felony defendants shouldn’t just be run through the spinning turnstile at the county jail and then be released right back into the community. Decent, everyday people are sick and tired of being repeatedly victimized, especially those who live in low-income neighborhoods infested by gangs. I know SB6 won’t completely solve the problem, but it will help rein in some local judges until we can vote them out of office next year.

    For more, please visit or click on the link below. Thanks.

  4. If you did the math on the numbers for recidivism, it's due to the court case backlog. Statistically, the same percentages (no statistically significant difference between them) are recidivating in 2015 and 2020. The # increase is because more people are awaiting trial than ever before, so obviously, the same people who recidivated before, recidivate now.

    Arguably, there are two issues. First, the DA isn't ready to go to trial or the case cannot go to trial so larger bonds are reduced per the Texas Constitution and the individual can get a bondsman to pay them out, or pay out directly. Secondly, bondsmen are likely not receiving as much money than before bond reform. Therefore, they make take a larger risk to bond out people who they would not have bonded prior to bail reform.

  5. @ anon 7:06, I said it's inarguably a lie that "bail reform" happened with felonies. It's just not true. Bail reform is an across the board policy involving granting certain classes of defendants personal bonds as a matter of course. That simply doesn't happen on felonies - if someone gets a personal bond, it's bc a judge assessed their case/risk individually. And those people are NOT the source of a significant amount of violent crime.

    Greg, same goes for you: Anecdotes are not a substitute for data, and SB 6 DOES NOT ADDRESS THE CASES YOU'RE describing. It's just not applicable. Cases where people paid to get out WILL NOT BE AFFECTED by the bill and you and Fox-26 pretending otherwise won't change that. They've let Andy Kahan misrepresent this issue to the public, but yo and Kim Ogg should know better.

  6. Greg Summerlin9/07/2021 10:02:00 AM


    When it comes to recidivist defendants charged with violent, felony offenses, SB6 probably should have been even MORE restrictive. To your point, it restricts some PR bonds (which helps), but it doesn't prevent rogue judges from continuing to set relatively low bail bond amounts, thus enabling repeated releases from jail. SB6 should have gone further to rein in these judges. SB6 aside, it isn't just DA Ogg, Crime Stoppers, and Fox-26 News speaking out against the Criminal District Court judges and their reckless bail bond decisions. Mayor Turner, Sheriff Gonzalez, Channel 2 News and numerous others have also called out our Criminal District Court judges (see links below). I see SB6 as a positive step forward to help improve public safety. As Democrats, we should be taking the lead on public safety. Democratic communities often suffer the most from the high crime rate...




  7. Sensational oversimplification still contains the logical fallacy.

    What is sad is that regular people accept such claims as true without scrutinizing the underlying reasoning.

    If the premises in Grits's critique are well-settled, I would make the further assertion that the Harris County DA is acting in bad faith--which has legal precedent as actionable.

  8. Greg, you are eliding the key fact that the cases you're complaining about WOULD NOT BE AFFECTED by SB 6. Giving links to inapplicable situations as a reason to pass a bill that would not have prevented them is just an invalid, logical stance. It's purely a political one. Repeating the same lies won't make it any more true.

  9. Greg Summerlin9/07/2021 11:28:00 AM


    Careful - Are you sure a PR bond played no role in the chain-of-events in any of the cases mentioned by the local media and the DA? Also, it seems like your basic argument is that SB6 doesn't actually go far enough to keep violent, felony defendants in jail. If so, then we agree.

    Also, I said, "SB6 aside..." when leading up to referencing the links. I was directly commenting on the Criminal District Judges, not SB6. The links were applicable to my comment.

  10. Greg Summerlin9/08/2021 12:37:00 PM


    You repeatedly asserted (in capital letters, no less) that SB6 would not have affected any of the cases publicized by Fox-26 and Crime Stoppers. I decided to click on the Fox-26 "Breaking Bond" link this morning and see for myself. The second story I clicked on documented the case of a violent, habitual felony offender (Randle Boyd Burton) released from jail on a "free" PR Bond by 351st Criminal District Court Judge Nata Cornelio. The charge in that case was aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. Last month, while out on that PR Bond, Burton opened fire on PCT 4 Constable deputies, attempting to murder the police officers - see link below for the entire story. In short, SB6 would have definitely affected that case by preventing the issuance of a PR Bond to a violent, habitual offender with over 20 prior felony convictions.

    SB6 can prevent a judge from issuing free PR bonds to violent, felony defendants (like in the Burton case). Unfortunately, it can't stop our judges from otherwise enabling their release by setting low bail amounts, or by repeatedly granting them multiple bonds. Until we elect some competent judges next year, SB6 will have to do.