Kim Ogg was elected district attorney of Harris County, Texas, in 2016 on a criminal justice reform platform, but has spent her first term largely pushing the status quo. She has repeatedly asked the County Commissioners Court, which makes budget decisions for the country’s third largest county, for dozens more prosecutors, requests that have thus far been denied. She also stood against a historic misdemeanor bail reform settlement that came as a result of a new wave of judges being swept in during the 2018 election in Harris County, which includes Houston.
Those moves have largely been at odds with Ogg’s stated vision for reform. In March, a former assistant district attorney under Ogg, Audia Jones, entered the 2020 race against her. And now, Carvana Cloud, the former Special Victims Bureau chief under Ogg, has left the office to enter the race.
Cloud grew up in Acres Homes, a historically Black neighborhood that is also home to Houston’s mayor, Sylvester Turner. She has had two stints in the district attorney’s office under different administrations, with an eight-year stretch as a defense attorney in between.
Cloud took a role in Ogg’s office because she was excited about the reforms promised during Ogg’s campaign, but she left the administration because the office was not going far enough.
“Prosecutors must acknowledge the role that they’ve played in this very oppressive system for generations. We’ve never just come out and said, ‘You know what, we’ve done this—we’ve relied on cash bail or unfair sentence enhancements or draconian plea bargains, and we have contributed to this problem. So we must atone, we must say that, we must take responsibility for our part in it,” Cloud said. “Then, we have to change.”
She spoke to The Appeal ahead of her filing today about why she’s running, and the change she believes the office needs. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You started in the district attorney’s office under DA Chuck Rosenthal, who resigned in 2008 after racist and sexually explicit emails from his work account were made public. Can you talk about your first round in the Harris County DA’s office?
I started in October 2005, Chuck Rosenthal hired me and I started there. When you start at the DA’s office you start as a Misdemeanor 3 prosecutor and you work your way up the ranks. During my time there, I call it round one, there was a lot of very ugly things that were happening. Chuck Rosenthal and others made some very lewd comments and racist innuendos about Black people, and it was clear that it was fostering a sense of exclusion rather than inclusion. And not that the DA’s office in Harris County really ever has [been inclusive], but it really made African American prosecutors take note and feel very uncomfortable. And I was one of the many that stood up and said, “Hey, this is not cool, we’re not gonna do this, this is not a place where you should be doing that,” and kind of called them out on it. And so Chuck ended up stepping down.
In 2009, it was reported that you left the DA’s office over concerns about diversity. You had supported Pat Lykos’s opponent, a Democrat, but Lykos won the DA spot. How did that play out?
The political retribution was that I was taken out of Public Integrity which was a very coveted spot where we were investigating and prosecuting public officials for wrongdoing, and placed in Intake, which is kind of where cases start. (When asked in 2009 whether Cloud was moved in retribution, Lykos told the Houston Chronicle, “I made the moves in the best interest of the office.”)
That was always a chief-level position. So even though it was kind of a sucky rotation, it was a position for a chief-level prosecutor, and I was a Felony 2, so I was right underneath that chief level. But they didn’t pay me chief pay, they didn’t promote me, they just said, “Hey, take all of this extra responsibility and do that.” … I was pregnant at the time, which made things really, really difficult. It was one of the most difficult periods in my life. Because I never thought I’d do anything else but be a prosecutor.
I decided to leave and I left in August of 2009. My baby had just been born, and I opened up my own practice. And man was that an awesome experience. So now with all of this information, all of these years of experience, I was able to go back to my community. I grew up here, in Acres Homes, which is a pretty impoverished community with a lot of crime, what folks like to call a high-crime area. But it’s an amazing community filled with amazing people who need opportunities and more than second chances. So I left and started my law office there. Because I realized that folks needed … regardless of if you had the $10,000 retainer, you still needed that very aggressive representation. So I practiced there for eight years, from 2009 to 2016.
And how did your return to the DA’s office come about?
I was actually a pretty heavy supporter of Kim’s. I definitely knew that we needed real change in Harris County and the Republican administration at the time was under [DA] Devon Anderson. We were not getting results.
I had a couple of cases that really stand out to me that were the tipping point for me supporting Kim. They involved me representing two young African American men. They were in college, they got marijuana charges, and I applied for the first-chance diversion program at the time and they were denied. They didn’t have any record, no prior anything, working and in college, and it was just a flat-out “no.” That infuriated me, and I said you know, I can no longer just sit by and watch this system continue to gobble up and eat up, especially young Black men. And I’m not going to be a part of it. So Kim, you want to change it, you’re running, let’s talk about your platform. And so I supported her. …
Kim asked me to come back, and … she was like, this is a really important time, we’re at a crossroads, I want you to come back and help me, we can really make some real change. And I believed it.
I led the family criminal law division, which is our domestic violence unit at the Harris County DA’s office. I went back in January 2017 as the chief of that division and started to realize that she didn’t really have a good grasp—or we didn’t share the same vision, I should say—of what criminal justice reform really was. There were a lot of opportunities that I think we’ve missed in being able to move that ball forward and we did just enough to be able to say we were different from the prior administrations, but that wasn’t enough for me.
And so my argument against more prosecutors is just that—more prosecutors means more prosecution.
Carvana Cloud candidate for Harris County DA
So what were some of those missed opportunities?
One of the opportunities specifically was a family violence diversion program that I wanted to start. The vast majority of the domestic violence offenders who were in jail in 2018, or who we had filed on in 2018, were Black and brown. And I looked at her and said, Kim, this really is an issue. There’s a huge racial and ethnic disparity issue here. And then when I peeled back the layers on some of those cases, a lot of them were misdemeanor cases, one-time cases, where there’d never been prior domestic abuse—they’re what I call situational type of domestic violence versus your serial batterer or strangler.
And I said, maybe we should do a diversion program, because the fact of the matter is a lot of these victims are going right back to the offender. They love them, they have kids together, whatever their reason, they’re reconciling. And the state, I don’t think, should be interfering in that, and if they are going to be getting together, we might as well support them the best way we can since they already are here in front of us, right?
And that was not met with a lot of support at all. And her response was, you’re doing all of this work to educate us about how domestic violence is a huge lethality predictor, you’re working on the strangulation task force, you know that’s good tough-on-crime stuff. So we don’t want to then backdoor it with a diversion, because it makes us look weak.
Well, that wasn’t my opinion at all. I think when you have one domestic violence case you simply have one domestic violence case—they are all so different. And if we’re not going to avail ourselves of all the available accountability methods … then we’re not doing justice for the victim or the defendant.
In February, Kim Ogg asked the Commissioner’s Court for $21 million to hire more than 100 new prosecutors. After that request was denied, she made three more attempts for smaller increases in prosecutors, which were also denied. Where do you stand on that?
That was a big blow, I think to her ego more than anything. Let me tell you something. I don’t know how many more prosecutors the office needs, but what I do know is that the office needs to be completely restructured and overhauled.
I worked with a couple other people in the office because we wanted to even out the workload across the office, because the majority of cases are in the trial bureau, there’s a misdemeanor trial bureau and a felony trial bureau. And it is basically kind of like general population, most cases all go there, unless if you meet these criteria you go to these different divisions.
In the felony trial bureau, for instance, you have prosecutors who have like 6, 7, 800 cases per lawyer. That’s a lot of cases per prosecutor.
And so then you have these special victims units, which I was over one of the special victims units, being over domestic violence, that has a handful of lawyers—like the family violence division at the time maybe had like six or eight prosecutors, but they had 3,000 cases and they covered 22 courts.
And if we know domestic violence is a huge homicide predictor and a crime driver, why aren’t bodies being allocated to that unit? Well, because it’s never been done like that before. And the way the office has been set up, the trial bureau has been king of the office, so we must continue to move forward with the way it’s always been. Not taking into account that it’s inefficient, it’s an antiquated system that bottlenecks cases, victims don’t get swift justice, and defendants don’t get speedy trials. And prosecutors are overworked.
So if it doesn’t work, why keep doing the same thing? And so my argument against more prosecutors is just that—more prosecutors means more prosecution. I don’t care how you spin it. If you’re still bringing the cases in the front door, if you’re still processing them the same way, it’s never going to change. You’re going to be back next year saying I need 100 more prosecutors.
If we sat down and were just real honest about how we could overhaul the system, decentralize perhaps the trial bureau and create specialized divisions like they’ve done in jurisdictions across the country, you can really then start to focus on really serious violent crime.
I created a proposal with some other folks, presented that as an option, and that was not received well, because I was trying to destroy the trial bureau and I was trying to step on people’s toes who were in leadership, and it became a personal thing. It wasn’t personal. I was trying to suggest a different alternative and model for the office, and to make it efficient.
Sometimes your car doesn’t work, sometimes you can’t get a babysitter. Does that mean if you miss court you should be locked up and put back in the jail? Absolutely not.
Carvana Cloud candidate for Harris County DA
Over the summer, you were promoted, is that right?
Actually, I decided to leave the office this summer. I cleared my office, I cleared it, and I said, “It’s time to go.” And I don’t know if she found out, I don’t know what, but in June she offered to promote me. And she said she valued me, and she wanted to create the special victims bureau, which was a bureau consisting of domestic violence, sexual assault, trafficking, elder abuse, and animal cruelty.
I took the promotion because I said, OK, well, titles mean something to this office. So maybe if I’m a bureau chief now, I have this title, I’m [one of the first Black women] to ever be made bureau chief in Harris County, it’s a wonderful accomplishment—OK, let’s do it. So I took the promotion. And I quickly learned that having a seat at the table didn’t always mean you had a voice, or that people wanted to hear your voice.
The truth is that these divisions that really impact people’s lives and their safety are really truly underfunded. And those are the types of divisions that handle the types of serious crimes that need attention. Meanwhile … on the misdemeanor trial bureau for example, they still are handling quite a few cases that frankly, in my opinion, shouldn’t even be coming through the criminal justice system.
Like what? Do you have types of cases that you would decline to prosecute?
Yeah, so trespass cases for example. I could go to Acres Homes right now at the corner store by my mama’s house and there’s some folks that are probably getting hemmed up right now for criminal trespass. And the officer can then arrest, search, ask questions, and it goes from there. I don’t see the value and I don’t see there is a direct connection to making this community safe.
Marijuana cases, there definitely is no direct correlation between possessing marijuana and that being a reason our communities are less safe. Look, marijuana is still illegal in Texas, I get it. But again we have discretion. So when we talk about cases that are coming in, we don’t have to accept every charge that comes in. We can’t decriminalize it, that’s for the legislature to do, and they’ll likely get there in Texas, but we don’t have to take the charges.
Graffiti. Low-level nonviolent offenses like that, where folks make mistakes, bad choices, but they shouldn’t be saddled with a criminal conviction for the rest of their life. I’m a big fan of pre-charge diversion … where there is no arrest made at all, no charge even filed. The individual would be diverted into some type of program, classes, training, job training, what have you, and upon successful completion, no charge would ever be filed.
In October, Kim Ogg came out hard against the misdemeanor bail reform settlement, saying the move away from cash bail “endangers the public.” How do you feel about the settlement, and about bail reform more broadly?
That was the last thing that we just fundamentally disagreed on, and by that time I was just done. The opposition of the misdemeanor bail reform lawsuit, I didn’t understand where it came from, I never saw any numbers—no numbers exist, she never presented any numbers or statistics to back up the fact that we should be opposing the misdemeanor bail reform that was posed in the lawsuit. I think there was an attempt to say that folks were not returning to court and the dockets were thereby going up and therefore the victims and the community were placed at a greater risk of danger or harm because people weren’t coming back to court.
I don’t buy that. I don’t think the community buys that, and again there’s no data to support that. We’re talking about trespass, graffiti, theft. … If you read the bail reform consent decree, you see they’ve put in so many opportunities to help make sure people come to court.
Life happens to people. Sometimes your car doesn’t work, sometimes you can’t get a babysitter. Does that mean if you miss court you should be locked up and put back in the jail? Absolutely not. So I couldn’t comprehend why we were doing that, and as a bureau chief, I’m on the third rung of executive leadership there, I was expected to support the elected DA’s position. Well, I couldn’t do that, so I left.
I went there looking to make real change, but the police unions came out pretty hard against her in late 2017, right after [Hurricane] Harvey. Just like they’re doing with other prosecutors across the nation.
Making these changes is not easy. It’s not easy at all. But I think she buckled under that pressure and started leaning to the right and, in exchange, she abandoned those key reform principles and that platform that she ran on.