Thursday, September 02, 2021

Prosecuting crimes of poverty isn't the same as combating a "crime wave"

The following is a guest blog post co-authored by Elizabeth Rossi of Civil Rights Corps and Amanda Woog of the Texas Fair Defense Project. Their organizations are among the civil rights groups involved in bail litigation against Harris County. Related: this discussion of the District Attorney's claims to be fighting a "crime wave" in Houston harken to this analysis of media coverage of crime and jails from a century ago. Sometimes, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The Chronicle’s recent editorial “How Harris County prosecutors are trying to stop Houston’s crime wave,” casts District Attorney Kim Ogg’s office as engaged in some heroic task of ferreting out the County’s most dangerous “criminals,” when in fact the DA is funneling millions of dollars toward the prosecution of poor people charged with crimes of poverty. Without a shred of evidence, the Chronicle adopted the DA’s party line, asserting that “more prosecutions means more justice and a safer community.”

Expert research -- including some paid for by the County -- shows that's not true.

The County hired national experts at the Justice Management Institute last summer to address exactly this question. JMI assessed the backlog and concluded that the safest and most fiscally responsible solution to the backlog would be “to dismiss all non-violent felony cases older than nine months,” with certain exceptions for cases like DWI, so that the DAO could devote its resources to prosecuting violent cases. The experts at JMI pointed out that only 42% of all felony cases (not just “violent” crimes) closed in 2019 resulted in a conviction. The other 58% resulted in dismissal, deferred adjudication, or acquittal. And even among the 42% of cases that resulted in conviction, the majority involved people who were released immediately into the community on probation. The idea that the DAO is rescuing Houston from a “crime wave” by prosecuting years-old theft-by-check cases and other poverty crimes is laughable.

But the Chronicle ignores this information.

The paper also ignores a recent academic study by researchers finding that non-prosecution of low-level offenses can lead to less crime without any negative effects on public safety. Ogg has offered no answer to these findings. And now she is asking for millions of dollars more to fund 22 additional prosecutors to conduct intakes -- which will bring even more people into the broken system, exacerbating a problem that Ogg created.

The DAO is to blame for this tragedy. Ogg has enormous discretion to decide whom to prosecute, and most of the cases that Ogg is now begging for resources to resolve shouldn’t even be in the system. Evidence and research show that expanding the wasteful punishment bureaucracy through initiatives like the DA’s “triage” program does nothing for public safety, but does a lot to expand the government’s control over and surveillance of poor people and Black and Brown people, exacerbating poverty, separating families, and making it more difficult for people to find jobs and housing - all conditions that tend to increase future crime, not decrease it.

Ultimately the Chronicle piece is hailing prosecutors as heroes for solving a problem that they created and that they can end without spending a single penny more. Ogg doesn’t need more money to do her job. Instead, Harris County needs to invest that money in proven solutions to public safety issues-- programs like violence interruption, mental health, youth programs, non-carceral crisis response, streetlights, and other interventions that prevent harm before it occurs -- and should stop spending millions of taxpayer dollars for the DAO to prosecute crimes of poverty from 2016.


Anonymous said...

The monitor also worked with National Association for Public Defense to look specifically at provision of county provided defense counsel at the misdemeanor level, i.e. the level impacted by ODonnell directly. The findings were very similar to JMI - the length of time from filing to disposition increased (page 21 of link), the backlog has almost doubled and that trend started before COVID (72), and almost two-thirds of all misdemeanor defendants had their cases conclude with dismissal (page 84). Of all misdemeanor Assault and Family Violence Assault cases disposed in Harris County FY 2020 (prior to COVID), 76 percent and 70 percent respectively were disposed with a dismissal (page 76) so there is some problem with prioritizing correctly accepting or charging these cases post arrest.

The increase in time from filing to disposition also increases the time a person is "exposed" to rearrest. If rearrest is increasing, the increase is very much related to the exposure time. As dismissal rates are also increasing across all misdemeanors, the public safety impact of having more misdemeanor cases seems dubious at best. Link to NAPD's report - there is a lot to wade through

Solomon Kane said...

Excellent article and an accurate description of our current situation. Unfortunately no one in a position to effect change is listening or cares enough to implement a change in policy.

Joel R. Lambright said...

Texas has become a notorious hub of lapdog journalism. So, The Houston Chronicle's failure to provide more angles in the editorial does not surprise me.

All news agencies bias coverage based on the values of their advertisers and audience. However, in Texas, outlets also contend with prosecutorial retaliation.

The Polk County Enterprise ran a critique of the local District Attorney's office, with an emphasis on the same assistant DA that gave me so much grief for collecting data to expose corruption in Corrigan. Even after printing a full front-page retraction, Tommy Coleman, the prosecutor, still had not sated his appetite for suppressing the free flow of information; I understand he proceeded to file a baseless lawsuit against the struggling local newspaper. Having worked for the Enterprise a few years back, I know that all articles published by Polk County Publishing must adhere to the best practices of the AP Stylebook--which provides comprehensive guidance on how to avoid distributing false information.

By contrast, he supported Willie Oppenshaw's law enforcement-friendly, sensationalist blog with an ad touting the value of First Amendment freedoms. I call such pandering abject hypocrisy that undermines the legitimacy of democracy.