In Texas, D.A. Who Promised Reform Now Faces Challenge From The Left
Audia Jones pledges to tackle ‘brokenness in the system’ by unseating Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg.
The day before Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg was denied $20 million to hire more than 100 new prosecutors, a progressive challenger surfaced to face off with the embattled district attorney. Audia Jones, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America and a prosecutor with four years’ experience under Ogg and her predecessor, said the timing was coincidental.
Jones, who left the district attorney’s office in December, said she felt emboldened to run because of the results of the 2018 election, when Harris County voters proved themselves ready for progressive criminal justice reform. In November, they elected a Democratic majority in the commissioners court, which controls the county’s budget, and swept in a slate of reform-minded judges, including Jones’s husband, felony court Judge DaSean Jones. “But then the third part, the missing part, is this DA position,” Jones said.
Under Ogg’s predecessor, Devon Anderson, Jones said there was too much focus on winning cases at the expense of true justice. Penalties were harsh, Jones said, and communities of color were overrepresented. Mugshots of disheveled defendants were hung around the office as a joke, she said.
Ogg came into office promising reform, Jones said, but her policies don’t match her rhetoric. Jones think the county deserves someone who will fight harder.
“Some people are born like, ‘I’m gonna be a prosecutor!’ And that just had never been me,” she said. “Being a woman of color, obviously the interactions with prosecution in our communities of color is not the best. … But what I thought was, maybe I can get in here and really shake things up and be something that’s different.”
Jones clerked at the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., interned for Representative Sheila Jackson Lee at the Capitol, and briefly set up a family law practice before joining the district attorney’s office. In her first interview as a candidate, Jones weighs in on what she thinks went wrong in Ogg’s administration and what types of cases she would decline to prosecute completely.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You were already at the district attorney’s office when Kim Ogg was elected in 2016. What did you think of her?
I was a big proponent of hers. I definitely was excited because of a lot of the information that she was putting out during her run, I was like OK, great, this is a chance for us to really right a lot of the wrongs. … I get it nobody’s perfect and I understand that’s a very difficult job to balance things, but when Kim came in, I thought it was going to be like a breath of fresh air.
And was it? There was a big round of layoffs right off the bat, right?
She laid almost 40 people off and to this day they call it Bloody Friday. That was before she actually physically got in office with her people. It definitely brought the morale down, but nonetheless I was still thinking, here are these promises that she made, she’s definitely going to give more discretion to the prosecutors, which is needed.
There were a lot of things being told to the public that were being swept under the rug, that just weren’t adding up. Audia Jones, candidate for Harris County DA
When Kim came in, the First Chance marijuana program [which allowed first-time marijuana possession charges for less than two ounces to be dropped in exchange for attending a class] was expanded to reach anybody, regardless of their criminal history, or at least that’s what we were being told. The theft program [which drops charges for first-time Class B (under $750) theft offenders who complete a 90-day program] was already being put in place before Devon left, so that wasn’t brought in by Kim, but it was implemented under her. And we were definitely given more discretion.
But as time went on, I started to realize that a lot of promises she made, she wasn’t keeping them. There were a lot of things being told to the public that were being swept under the rug, that just weren’t adding up.
The possession of marijuana cases. Essentially, people were supposed to be diverted pre-arrest, so that the possession of marijuana charges wouldn’t be filed, no matter what someone’s criminal history was. Well, now it’s showing that those cases are still being filed against individuals, that’s number one.
And bail reform. Publicly we have a DA that said, “Hey, I’m with you guys, I’m all for you.” There was a written response that she did supporting dropping the cash bail lawsuit. And then a couple months later, we have … the news where she told us you have to ask for $15,000 bonds on [some] misdemeanor cases. That is three times the amount of the maximum that we would ask for on any misdemeanor offense.
Why did you decide to run?
I just could no longer sit and continue to be part of a system that targeted people of color, that targeted communities of drug addiction, that targeted low-income, the working class, worse than the prior administration. … And the reason they need 102 new prosecutors, they are bleeding people that are in there now.
You worked for a while in the intake division. Can you tell me about that?
That was the first time where I was like wow, there are calls in about 7-year-old kids elbowing people. That was one of the major eye-openers where I was like, this system is flawed … something’s seriously wrong. I’m not trying to pick on anyone in particular, I think there’s good and bad actors in every situation, but in intake, you really get to see the good, bad, and ugly of law enforcement.
We had officers that called in and would essentially try to prosecutor shop. So if you declined a charge they’d call back and try to speak to other prosecutors in the office to see if they would take the charge. I had an officer call in and say they found marijuana in this guy’s bag. I think the guy might have suffered a seizure or something, he was in the hospital. … The officer took it upon himself to go in the guy’s bag while he was out of it—he was incapacitated—and wanted to formally charge him while he was incapacitated to arrest him whenever he became awakened.
So I told him I wouldn’t accept it, and he told me he was going to go and change his offense report to reflect the fact that the [marijuana] was sticking out of the guy’s bag, because you can’t go in someone’s bag if it’s not in plain view under the law. So he said he was going to go change it to fit what we needed.
If you’re not going to charge it, don’t charge it. It’s literally that simple.Audia Jones, candidate for Harris County DA
I told the officer I’m declining the charges; If you do that, I will make sure that the prosecutor that receives this charge understands that you went and changed that and that we initially did not take the charge. But I had to let all the other prosecutors working that day know that this guy was calling around and this is the case, please do not take the charge.
That’s where it all begins, a lot of the brokenness in the system.
You’ve also spoken about racial bias in the diversion program. Can you talk more about that?
What Kim Ogg has done is essentially created this convict leasing system … So now they have to pay just to get into the pretrial diversion program, they have to stay under that program for what I’ve been told is [three] months, where you have to pay monthly court supervisory fees. If you don’t have [that money], guess what, you’re not getting into it, and we’ll go ahead and formally file those charges.
It reminds me of “Clean & Green.” If you’re going to tell the public we’re no longer going to prosecute these cases because they are oppressing the poor, they’re oppressing communities of color, they’re oppressing many of our community members, just don’t charge them. But instead of doing that, what does this administration do? They bring the people in, they say hey, you’re going to have to do so many hours of cleaning up trash down at the bayou, which we know isn’t in these degraded communities, it’s not like they are doing it in communities that could use the help. So either you pick up trash like a convict that’s being leased out to Harris County … [or] if you don’t do it, that’s fine, we’ll go ahead and file formal charges against you.
It looks good on the outside, but you’re still holding punishment over these people’s heads. If you’re not going to charge it, don’t charge it. It’s literally that simple, and all it takes is political courage.
Rather than diverting people, the DA could just drop the cases completely, right? Is that what you’d do as DA?
That goes to cite and release. I think cite and release [in which defendants receive court summonses but aren’t arrested] is our number one priority. If we’re saying hey, the people that are filling up Harris County jail are people who are accused of nonviolent low-level offenses, we’re going to implement cite and release. And let’s say we’re getting some kind of pushback. At the end of the day, we’re an independent body. We are a huge piece of how this criminal justice system is working, who it’s working for, and how it’s working against the many people that are in Harris County.
We are a huge piece of how this criminal justice system is working, who it’s working for, and how it’s working against the many people that are in Harris County. Audia Jones, candidate for Harris County DA
If we have another body that’s saying we will not go along with cite and release, that’s fine. If you don’t agree with it, and we feel that the facts and the evidence is sufficient, and this is not a harm or threat to society or that individual, we’re not going to even take the charges. So we will even decline to prosecute those charges.
What offenses would be on your cite-and-release list?
All of our low-level nonviolent offenses: Criminal trespass, criminal mischief, as long as there isn’t evidence to support some sort of violence being involved geared towards an individual. You have your burglary of motor vehicle, you have your resisting arrest that may be combined with some other type of offense. Unlawful carry of a weapon, cite and release. I believe that the felony offenses also, like possession of any type of specific substance—I don’t want to say just a controlled substance but possession of some type of dangerous drug or a drug—I believe that needs to be cite and release as well. Those are some of the examples.
And what charges would you decline to prosecute as DA?
The possession of marijuana, and even past the two ounces. We’d decline to prosecute possession of marijuana up to amounts that show there’s some evidence to believe that the person is actually distributing the marijuana. Higher than two ounces.
A lot of times when there is some kind of abuse or misuse of power, the first thing we see in an offense report is “There was a strong odor of marijuana.” I mean who can dispute that? It opens the floodgates for abuse of constitutional rights.
Number two would be stand-alone resisting arrest charges. Look, people are human beings. The officers are human beings, they’re out there and they’re doing very stressful jobs, they’re working long hours, their pay is typically not the most sought-after pay. But then you have individuals that are just citizens of Harris County that are just going through their everyday life and you don’t know what people are going through.
A lot of times, it’s just the situation has reached the point where it’s frustrating for both parties, and we want to essentially level the playing field for everybody. Are we going to allow an individual who has more power to abuse that power and say, “OK, I can’t find anything else on you, I’m just going to take you in for resisting arrest?” I’ve seen that time and time again.
How do you feel about the cash bail lawsuit settlement, which eliminates cash bail for most misdemeanors? Would you go further, as some are proposing, and eliminate cash bail for felonies?
The settlement, I love it. I think it really hits to one of the hugest broken aspects of the criminal system as far as oppressing the poor and it disproportionately targets people of color. I think it’s huge in turning the tides. I’m all for it.
I am absolutely in agreement with cash bail reform for felony offenses. As the third-largest county in the U.S., it’s important for us to be on the forefront rather than the tail end when it comes to something positive. If we look at how Washington, D.C., courts are handled—and I worked in the district courts there—they handle criminal and civil aspects and they never use cash bail. If you feel like someone is a violent offender or you feel like someone is a threat to the community or a threat to themselves or others, guess what you use? You request no bond. That is an alternative. It’s not like we don’t have alternatives to this cash bail system.