70 Million

Reform Activists and a New DA Find Common Ground

Episode Summary

Activists in Houston were galvanized by events in Ferguson in 2014 following the death of Michael Brown. First, they took to the streets in protest. Then they started organizing. Not long after, they found a kindred spirit in the most unlikely person: a candidate for the DA office. Reporter Ruxandra Guidi chronicles how activists and reformers are succeeding in cutting the jail population, diverting drug arrests, and increasing accountability for local police.

Episode Notes

Activists in Houston were galvanized by events in Ferguson in 2014 following the death of Michael Brown. First, they took to the streets in protest. Then they started organizing. Not long after, they found a kindred spirit in the most unlikely person: a candidate for the DA office. Reporter Ruxandra Guidi chronicles how activists and reformers are succeeding in cutting the jail population, diverting drug arrests, and increasing accountability for local police.

Episode Transcription

Mitzi Miller: 70 million adults in the United States have a criminal record. I’m Mitzi Miller and this is 70 Million -- an open-source podcast about people, and communities, taking on the broken criminal justice system. This season, we'll chronicle how local jails compound the problem, and what residents are doing about it. 

Montage: “Here I am with the judges and attorneys and, you know, police officers...” 

“You can have the most beautiful resume and they’re still going to label you as a felon.”a

“I wanted to be able to, to dig in, roll up my sleeves and figure out what could be done about this issue.”

“You’re not letting us be human, like, you’re not letting us just be regular girls.”

“For 20 years all I heard was shut up inmate. And now all of a sudden I have a voice.” 

Mitzi: 2014 is the year police brutality went viral… 

News clip: Police forces facing a serious controversy over a video that’s gone viral, showing officers arresting a suspect who later died. The video…

Mitzi: It was the moment when the mainstream could no longer deny the fact that our criminal justice system targets black and brown people while convicting only about a third of police officers accused of misconduct.

News clip: This been goin’ on before Michael Brown, this been goin’ on before Trayvon Martin, before Emmett Till, you know, this been goin’ on for a long time.

Mitzi: First came the case of Eric Garner, a 43 year-old unarmed man in New York City who died after being put in a chokehold by a police officer.

Clip: One of them puts his forearm around Garner’s neck. More police join in, pinning him to the ground as he cries out.

Mitzi: Then, in Missouri, in November of that same year, a grand jury decided not to indict Darren Wilson, the police officer who’d fatally shot 18-year-old Michael Brown.

On that day, Ferguson exploded into protest, and elsewhere around the country, people organized to demand justice.

News clip: Hands up, don’t shoot! 

Mitzi: In Texas, this wave of reform swept Harris County, the most populous county in the state, spurred on by new leadership at the District Attorney’s office.

From Houston, Ruxandra Guidi has our story.

Ruxandra: Known for being “tough on crime”, tougher even than Texas as a whole, Harris County incarcerated mostly low-level and non-violent offenders. Its jails were the subject of numerous federal investigations over inmate abuse. It was no different than Missouri. At the same time that scores of people went out to protest in Ferguson, around 100 people gathered at a park, south of downtown Houston. 

Durrel Douglas was there. He was 28 at the time, and working as a labor organizer. 

Douglas: After Ferguson, there was this Facebook invite to this event at MacGregor Park. 

Ruxandra: Durrel’s a Houston native. He was born and raised in South Park, a black and Latino enclave known in the ‘90s for its high crime rate. 

Douglas: Somebody set up an event and people just went — there was no organization, there was no nothing.

Ruxandra: Durrel says he still doesn’t know who was behind the Facebook post. But eventually, the crowd at the park swelled to 300 people and then took off en masse in the direction of the courts and police headquarters downtown. 

Douglas: People are just joining, like we’re passing apartment complexes and people are just joining. We’re this mob of people.

Ruxandra: At one point, the demonstrators blocked a freeway, and police on horseback stayed out of their way, holding back traffic. Durrel remembers being captured by the TV cameras that night.

Douglas: All of Houston saw us, y’all saw the cameras, all of Texas saw us… And you do that whole thing to really sort of encompass and remind people, like, we didn’t just walk from MacGregor to the Denny’s on Southmore, we demonstrated a constituency that wants change.”

Ruxandra: What change might look like was still unclear at that point. But Durrel knew that it had to involve criminal justice reform. He was all too familiar with how the system worked; he used to be a prison guard in central Houston. 

Douglas: I did it for exactly five years. I started as a corrections officer, and then I was a sergeant, and then I was a lieutenant.

Ruxandra: He saw firsthand how black men like him could easily find themselves in prison and unable to rebuild their lives. What’s more, Durrel would often guard others who’d grown up in his neighborhood.

Douglas: And here I am, this 23 year old black man, who’s watching all of these inmates, mostly black and brown, and there are these white guys on horses with rifles in their hands and they’re checking them off… Jones! Yessir… Johnson! Here, sir. And I’m like, is this 1843, right?

Ruxandra: On the night of the protest, Durrel and his fellow activists felt euphoric. They couldn’t imagine just going to sleep. So instead, they stayed in Durrel’s apartment. Durrel took out a whiteboard, and on it, he started listing the local issues that needed change.

Douglas: It was at that point that we realized like, wait, all this time we’ve been saying stuff like that happens here. It is literally happening right now.

Ruxandra: It only took a few online searches for them to learn that Harris County didn’t release transcripts of police shootings, that local police weren’t required to wear body cameras while on duty, and that in Texas, members of grand juries were chosen by a judge, what’s known as a “pick-a-pal” system. Typically, a grand jury is made up of 23 people who determine whether criminal charges should be brought against a suspect. If that jury is made up of friends of the judge, that usually means they’re white and older, and not peers of most of the defendants facing them.

Douglas: I mean, we were pulling the data, we were getting the racial makeup of their grand juries because even though the names are blacked out, the racial makeup is there. So we were able to actually access a lot of that stuff, and so the pressure was building.

Ruxandra: Three people lead the effort: Durrel, who had union organizing experience, Damien Thaddeus Jones, a policy activist focused on environmental justice, and Shekira Dennis, a former Obama White House intern interested in civic engagement. For months, after work, the three of them met at Durrel’s apartment. They dug up the data that would help them make their case to other organizations and possible supporters. They spoke to neighbors, to public officials and pastors. By early 2015, they had a name. Here’s Shekira.

Dennis: Houston Justice was a very organic, grassroots initiative started by three young African American kids who wanted to make a difference; it was not something we wanted to be this big grandiose thing, like oh my god, all these foundations are going to look at us and give us a million dollars. We just wanted to do the work our way, given the tools that we had.

Ruxandra: They didn’t have money, but they did have social media, smartphones, and a big network of fellow activists who were outspoken about the urgent need for racial equity.

Dennis: We lobbied legislators, we knocked on doors, we organized in churches, as it pertained to grand jury reform and that had taken us so far. 

Ruxandra: Houston Justice made lots of noise, calling for protests and town halls that invited locals of all backgrounds to join their effort for criminal justice reform. But the group was also demanding change at the top; they called for the resignation of the District Attorney, Devon Anderson. 

Anderson was the head prosecutor in a county court where black people represented 19 percent of the population, but made up almost half of those arrested for drug possession. During Anderson’s tenure, 200 African-American inmates died in jail, due to neglect and abuse. Eighty-five percent of them had been awaiting trial and hadn’t yet been convicted of a crime. Faced with these statistics, Shekira and her fellow organizers realized that for starters, they needed to demand public accountability.

Dennis: What we needed was for them to be responsive, and we just weren’t getting that type of feedback, so our job then is to empower other community stakeholders to come forward, to join forces, to move the needle.

Ruxandra: DA Anderson refused to resign. But less than a year since the MacGregor Park protest, the needle was finally moving further. A new state law passed, banning the "pick-a-pal" system, Houston Justice circulated petitions to demand that police officers wear body cameras, and they prevailed. And by 2014, a different kind of candidate ran for the District Attorney’s Office.

Political ad: I’m Kim Ogg, and I want to be your next DA. My opponent says I’m dangerous; she’s right. 

Ruxandra: Kim Ogg was an openly gay native Houstonian who started out as a line prosecutor in 1987 and advocated for victims’ and defendants’ rights. She ran on a platform that included drug policy and bail reform, deprioritizing drug-related arrests, and holding police officers accountable. Ogg would not beat incumbent Devon Anderson in 2014, but that’s when Shekira first noticed her.

Dennis: It’s never going to be -- ‘the activist community is excited about the DA’s office’, alright? 

Ruxandra: Still, Shekira says she was hopeful about Ogg’s reform-focused campaign.

Dennis: We’re trying to really work past 20, 30 years of irresponsiveness or insensitivity to communities, so there’s a gap of trust, right? We gotta bridge that gap.

Ruxandra: Among those trying to bridge that gap of trust were Houston Justice, Texas Organizing Project, immigrant rights groups, and black churches. 

And riding that wave of reforms was Kim Ogg who ran again in 2016 and won, becoming the first Democrat in that office in 36 years. Shekira believed in Ogg’s vision so much that she left Houston Justice to go work for the new DA as a new community outreach coordinator.

DA Ogg seemed eager to work with local activists. Sitting in her small corner office overlooking downtown, she still has a lot to say about what makes her different from her predecessors.

Ogg: The DA was not playing fair, not with bail, not with nonviolent offenses, and not even doing a great job on violent offenses. A great example is the prosecution of 10,000 misdemeanor cases a year for marijuana possession at the expense of leaving 8,000 rape kits.

Ruxandra: She wanted to put fewer resources into arresting drug users and more into solving sex crimes. She also wanted to do away with a common practice that would entail testing small, personal-use amounts of narcotics in a lab after an arrest.

Ogg: Public policy is set by the leaders who are elected, and offices decide what the priorities are by the way they spend their money. And when you spend them on testing marijuana instead of testing rape kits, that’s a statement.

Ruxandra: Soon after she got to office, Ogg also fired more than three dozen prosecutors. Her list of reforms was daunting, especially for the most populous county in Texas — one known for handing out a lot of convictions, sentencing harshly and favoring capital punishment. 

So she reached out to stakeholders for advice on how to develop more humane programs and procedures, groups like homeless service organizations, mental health professionals, and legal rights advocates like Sandra Guerra Thompson from the Criminal Justice Institute at the University of Houston. 

Thompson: You know, it was a long time coming for Harris County because Harris County is the biggest county in the state, and has had some of the poorest performance in many ways in terms of jail overcrowding, jail suicides, lots of issues. Wrongful convictions.

Ruxandra: Sandra is a critic of Texas’ harsh sentencing and tough-on-crime policing. I met her inside her campus office, surrounded by leather-bound law books. She tells me she’d been more interested in studying the courts and the police from the outside, rather than advising them from within until DA Ogg came along, and Sandra sensed a rare openness to dialogue and reforms -- a unique opportunity.

Thompson: I just realized that nobody that I could see, I didn’t really hear a lot of voices speaking out for the people who were getting trapped in the system. Because I think frankly that the problem built up over decades without people realizing what they were doing, what the consequences were of the kind of system that they were operating.

Ruxandra: The way Sandra sees it, the entire criminal justice system had been broken for years, from the laws and the patrol officers who enforced them, to the courts where defendants faced a judge and the jails they sent them to. Around the country, but particularly in the South, whether it was in Ferguson, Missouri, or in Harris County, Texas -- the poorer the defendant, the more unjust their treatment was.

Here’s how it usually worked: If you were arrested for a misdemeanor or minor offense, that meant the police had probable cause — it didn’t mean you were guilty of something, necessarily. Yet before you could face a judge in court, you were required to pay money to get out of jail. If you didn’t have the money for bail, anywhere between 500 to fifteen hundred dollars, you could be held for days or weeks on a charge, without any conviction.

Thompson: If you go back you can listen to blues songs from the 20s about ‘getting stuck in jail ‘cause I don’t have the money for bail.’ And it’s part of the sort of American lore that you have to pay money to get out of jail. But when we started really looking at it we realized, well, this is only really a problem if you don’t have money. And for people with money it’s no big deal whatsoever; they get to go on with their lives, they get to go back to work and go home and take care of their children and pay their bills. But for the poor, it’s devastating.

Ruxandra: Being in jail can derail people’s lives even if they ultimately walk free. But if you get a conviction, and therefore a record, the results are even more devastating. 

Koontz: I had no idea of the long-term effects when it comes to housing, when it really gets down to job opportunities and you sit down and you speak to someone.

Ruxandra: This is Terrance Koontz, or TK. He was convicted of a felony for evading arrest with a vehicle in 2011. Though he only spent one night in jail, he ended up with a record. His driver’s license was suspended, he had trouble getting school loans, an apartment, and a job. 

Koontz: There’s no, what kind of felon are you, what was the charge, what did you do, how long ago was it? It’s just no, this complex does not take felons, we do not hire felons here. I felt like, had I not had my support system, I would probably be homeless — I think I would have just lost my sanity, because it’s a lot to try to process.

Ruxandra: Many years before that felony record, TK was just a boy growing up in the Third Ward, a working-class neighborhood that’s the center of Houston’s African American community. 

Koontz: My very first experience with police I was, I guess, 8 or 9. 

Ruxandra: On that day, TK’s third grade class had an early dismissal from school and he headed home alone. All of a sudden, a police car stopped next to him. The officer leaned out the window and asked him, over and over again, whether he was skipping school.

Koontz: And the officer put me in handcuffs and put me in the back of his car and basically, I guess, did whatever he had to do in his computer system to see what was going on, or call the school or verify… I don’t know what he did. All I know is that I was walking home from school and all of a sudden I was in the back of a police car.

Ruxandra: He was eventually released and sent home. But the incident stayed with TK throughout his childhood and adolescence. And it was the first thing that came to mind one fateful night in 2010.

Koontz: I should not have been doing what I was doing. I was speeding, going about 100 miles per hour going through Bellaire, which is definitely the wrong territory for me to be doing anything, even walking. Maybe I should not even be there.

Ruxandra: When TK calls Bellaire “the wrong territory” — he means it’s a wealthy, mostly white neighborhood with big homes, a part of town where black drivers can be stopped simply for being there. 

Koontz: Then I heard the sirens, and as soon as I heard the sirens I pulled over and of course I expected to get a DWI, I didn’t take a field sobriety test, they just took me in. When I woke up the next morning I found out that I had a DWI and evading arrest and evading arrest is a felony in a motor vehicle in the state of Texas.

Ruxandra: TK insists that he didn’t try to outrun the cops and evade arrest. Yes, he was driving drunk, but he says he’d stopped the car as soon as he noticed the police car behind him and he didn’t resist the officer when he was handcuffed. That next morning, sitting in jail, TK was confused about what to do next.

Koontz: So I talked to this brother and he told me who his lawyer was and I took that lawyer.  

Ruxandra: Unaware of his options, TK listened to his lawyer and decided not to fight the case. In Texas, felonies like his are punishable by 180 days to two years in state jail and a fine of up to 10 thousand dollars. In Harris County in particular, prosecutors at the time would even threaten to give harsher sentences to those who wouldn’t take a guilty plea. TK was terrified. So he pled guilty.

Koontz: And long story short, I paid $4,000 to get a felony and a misdemeanor because I pled because I was so naive and afraid of, if I lose this case, they’re going to send me to jail.

Ruxandra: Above all, TK was desperate to get back home, to regain his freedom.

Koontz: Once you go in there, you know, like, time stops. Like you really start… Like I may never get out of here again — this is all you’re thinking about.

Ruxandra: He may have gotten out of jail, but now TK had a record, and it would take him weeks and months to realize the full implications as he tried to move on with his life.

Koontz: And I often think back about that night and that whole experience. There was no real assessment of who I was, where I came from, let me check your references, let me look at your background. I had never been in trouble. Before I got arrested I worked at the Boys and Girls Club, YMCA, like, I was employed, I was an upstanding citizen for the most part; I just had a rough night with alcohol. But the judge didn’t consider that. She said, well the officer said this, go back, have a seat. You know? I still wake up sometimes feeling trapped.  

Ruxandra: TK’s experience may have derailed his life, but it also launched him into activism. He eventually found work as a community organizer for the Texas Organizing Project, helping others like him to rebuild their lives or challenge the courts or police when necessary. He was at that MacGregor Park protest back in 2014, along with the Houston Justice folks. 

Koontz: It’s not easy, but I know I’m not the only one, which makes it harder for me to sit back and just feel sorry for myself.

Ruxandra: It’s been nearly two years since the changing of the guard at the DA’s office. Many reforms are yielding results already; in the first few months of Ogg’s tenure last year, the jail population went down by about a thousand inmates. Over five thousand people who would have typically been charged with a misdemeanor for marijuana possession were instead diverted to a four-hour “Cognitive Decision-Making” class without getting a criminal record. Public defenders are now present in magistrate courts to represent defendants in their initial court appearance. And new initiatives are in place to support victims of domestic and sexual violence. DA Ogg says, let the results of the new DA’s office speak for themselves.

Ogg: I believe the public is smart enough when they’re presented with the facts and the data, to decide. And think that’s what my election was reflective of.

Ruxandra: But less than a year into Ogg’s term, her plans for reform faced two major challenges. In April came a federal class action lawsuit arguing that Harris County kept people in jail for too long simply because they were too poor to post bail. A judge called the county’s bail practices unconstitutional and ordered the release of almost all misdemeanor defendants within 24 hours of arrest. DA Ogg welcomed these reforms. But this came as a shock to those working in the county jails, including Assistant Chief Debra Schmidt, a 32-year veteran at the Sheriff’s office.

Schmidt: One of the largest reforms that we have in place right now requires an almost immediate release of misdemeanor defendants. That has had a tremendous impact. 

Ruxandra: I met Assistant Chief Schmidt at the jail, a giant concrete building on the edge of downtown. The jail survived the other challenge to reforms, the one no one could have seen coming.

News clip: Breaking news in America this Wednesday morning, searching for survivors. Rescuers in boats going door to door overnight in Houston, after Harvey dumped for than fifty...

Ruxandra: In August, the storm pummeled Houston, displacing thousands of people and flooding homes and buildings, including the DA’s Office and the courthouse. Trials to this day are taking place in the jail and in other undamaged county buildings. 

Assistant Chief Schmidt agrees with the DA on the need for keeping most nonviolent offenders from crowding the jails. But she is overwhelmed by the complex and delicate task of reforming the jails and the pretrial bond system overnight and with limited county resources.

Schmidt: Right immediately after Harvey our jail population plummeted. And then the other impacts of Harvey caught up, which were namely and specifically the fact that we didn’t have enough venues to hold felony court. And that outpaced everything.

Ruxandra: Today, there are 10 percent more people in Harris County jails than before the storm, effectively canceling out the progress made in reducing that population.

Schmidt: And that is significant. That is a massive jump.

Ruxandra: But perhaps one of the most radical changes under DA Ogg has been a renewed effort for accountability throughout the criminal justice system, including a revamped civil rights division that investigates the police.

News clip: A couple charged with murder at a local Denny’s will now stand trial. Terry Thompson and his wife Chauna, a former Harris County deputy, are accused of the crime.  

Ruxandra: In 2017, Chauna Thompson, a deputy police officer, and her husband Terry, had an altercation with a drunk man outside a Houston restaurant. In a first for the county, the DA’s office indicted the Thompsons for murder in the choking death of John Hernández. They’re facing separate trials: Chauna will face hers in October.

The Civil Rights division has also indicted at least a dozen officers for things like aggravated assault and obstruction of justice. Some see it as sending a message to all law enforcement officers in Harris County. And many of them are pushing back. Among them is Joseph Gamaldi of the Houston Police Officers’ Union. Here he is at a panel discussion earlier this year.

Gamaldi: I’m sure before I walked into this room today, y’all assumed that we have hundreds of shooting by our officers in the city of Houston. Last year, we had 2 million citizen contacts; we had 15 officer-involved shootings. Fifteen.

Ruxandra: Gamaldi says that number could even be lower if his department had more resources.

Gamaldi: If the community wanted to make an investment in the police department and increase our staffing to a point where we could have two officers in every single car, we’d probably drive that number down to five. I mean, it’s right there in front of us if we have the will and the money, that we’re willing to do that.

Ruxandra: Gamaldi’s rationale goes something like this: more money for the Houston Police Department would result in fewer officer-involved shootings, because patrol officers would have more backup, and would therefore be less likely to act out of fear of being hurt. 

But the argument doesn’t hold for criminal justice advocates like TK or the members of Houston Justice who’d like to see less police, not more, and better police training, and who feel that law enforcement officials are rarely punished for their abuse of power. Until now. 

Seven years since his felony charge, TK is emboldened to advocate on behalf of himself and others. For him, it comes down to this.

Koontz: We deserve better today, we want better today. And it’s not a complex math equation or rocket science — it is simple standards of living. I should be able to pay my bills, I should be able to enjoy time with my family. Simple things. I don’t need the big house; I just need to be able to enjoy the one I live in. I need to know that I can go outside and walk in my community without being oppressed by a police officer.

Ruxandra: Like other advocates calling for bail and inmate reentry reform, TK is hopeful about this moment in Harris County history. But he’s not placing all his hopes on DA Ogg. He’s betting on people like himself, who are going on to become community organizers and engaged citizens.

In Houston, I’m Ruxandra Guidi for 70 Million.

Mitzi: Thanks for listening. Now we want to hear from you. Have you, a friend or a loved one experienced the impact of jails? Are you active in local reform? Can we help you recognize someone in your community who’s been an agent of change? Email us at hello@70millionpod.com or call us at 202-670-4912.

For more information, visit 70millionpod.com. We’re an open-source podcast, so we invite you to use our episodes, transcripts, syllabi, and resource guides in your classrooms, organizations, and anywhere they might be useful. You may rebroadcast parts of or entire episodes without permission. Just please drop us a line so we can keep track.

70 Million is made possible by a grant from the Safety and Justice Challenge at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. 

The podcast is a production of Lantigua Williams & Co. It’s edited by Jen Chien and mixed by Luis Gil. Our associate producer is Oluwakemi Aladesuyi. Our marketing specialist is Kate Krosschell. Our resource guide writer is Amy Alexander. Special thanks to Paula Mardo for production assistance. Juleyka Lantigua-Williams is the creator and executive producer. I'm Mitzi Miller.



Guidi, Ruxandra, reporter. “Reform Activists and a New D.A. Find Common Ground,” 70 Million Podcast, Lantigua Williams & Co, September 10, 2018. www.70millionpod.com