Harris County, Texas, has long played a leading role in America’s law-and-order regime. Its elected officials have presided over a 130 executions since 1972, and its police jail more people than many states’ entire prison systems.
In recent years, however, an insurgent progressive movement has emerged in the country, which includes Houston. Democrats swept local races back in 2016, in what conservatives at the time called “the worst defeat for Republicans”’ in county history. Among the victors was Kim Ogg, who became the county’s first Democratic district attorney in more than three decades.
On the trail, Ogg vowed to reduce prosecutions for crimes like marijuana possession, enact bail reforms, and improve community trust and public safety. But she has delivered on few of the progressive promises she ran on. One of the candidates jockeying to replace her is Audia Jones, a former district attorney whose platform is among the most progressive of any DA running for office in 2020. That vision has helped Jones attract local support from groups including the Texas Organizing Project and the Houston GLBT Political Caucus, along with the attention of national political figures such as Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors and Tiffany Cabán, the criminal-justice reformer who was 55 votes away from becoming the Queens district attorney. On February 13, Jones added another important endorsement: Senator Bernie Sanders backed her and three other progressive DAs running for office.
I spoke to Jones by phone ahead of early voting in Texas, which begins tomorrow, February 18.
Daniel Fernandez: You have experience as a prosecutor, but some of your opponents have spent decades working in Harris County. What experiences do you think you’d bring to bear that these other candidates might not have?
Audia Jones: We have a current district attorney who’s made comments about being part of a progressive dynasty, and did not keep those promises. I’m going in there having seen everything, and it didn’t take me 10, 15, 20 years to realize our system was completely lopsided. What we intend to do is be evidence-based and data-driven. We want to start tracking the causes so that at the end of our first year we can say, “Hey, we’ve done something different, and this is how it’s decreasing our prison population and the amount of spending we put towards imprisoning individuals.” Our communities are calling for something different, and it’s time we give that a chance.
DF: You’re running for office amid a wave of progressive success in Harris County. How do you see yourself fitting within this movement for reform?
AJ: I always tell people in Harris County that the DA is the most powerful actor in our criminal justice system. We’re the gatekeepers: The DA is the key to making this progressive movement a reality. We have had a slew of progressive elected officials who are doing great things, from the county commissioner’s court to the judges, and I think the missing link is the district attorney.
DF: The number of men incarcerated in Texas prisons and jails has decreased in recent years, even as the number of incarcerated women continues to rise. What plans do you have to address the needs of women caught up in the legal system?
AJ: Houston is the number one hub in the US for human trafficking. A lot of women are getting caught up in sex work or being victims of human trafficking. Essentially all we’ve done is incarcerate them, which does nothing to help. We also know we have a significant number of women who are victims of domestic violence, but from my own experiences in the district attorney’s office, [I can say] we don’t really provide resources for individuals who have been victims. And I think it’s time for us to provide life skills and resources, like going to a psychologist or psychiatrist to mentally battle through whatever it is that they went through.
DF: Another part of your platform is abolishing the death penalty. But jurors in your county have imposed just two death sentences in the last five years. Rather than concentrating on the death penalty, many people have called attention to the more than 17,000 people in Texas who face natural life sentences. What plans do you have for responding to the needs of these individuals who are facing this “other death penalty”?
AJ: One of our primary focuses is our conviction integrity review unit. In the first 100 days, we want to pull every case where individuals are sentenced to 10 or more years in prison and review all of the evidence and the details surrounding either the conviction or plea, including pulling in outside counsel to help on cases to make sure that any individual, no matter their sentence, has gotten a fair shake.
DF: Texas is also one of just three states in which 17-year-olds are prosecuted as adults. Would you use your discretion to stop trying and punishing children as adults?
AJ: Yes. Children’s brains continue to develop up until the age of 21 to 25. So when we’re specifically charging kids who are 17 as adults, even when we’re saying they’re not adults for a movie, they’re not adults for the purposes of purchasing alcohol or purchasing cigarettes, there is a huge disconnect. And again, I am the only candidate who has publicly stated we will no longer be moving forward [with adult prosecution] unless somebody has suffered serious bodily injury or sexually violent crime. We need to deal with children as children. Dealing with them as adults has done nothing but perpetuate the school-to-prison pipeline and increase our prison populations.
DF: You’ve talked about redirecting resources to prosecute violent crime. But within that, what do you think is the appropriate response for someone who has been convicted of, let’s say, a homicide or rape?
AJ: As far as the appropriate response, it’s our responsibility in the district attorney’s office to weigh all of the factors. What was the cause [of the crime]? What was this person’s history? Their mental well-being? Have they been in and out of the criminal system before? I think all of those factors need to come into play when we’re determining what type of plea agreement to seek or offer.
Our number one priority will always be to make sure that the community is safe, but I think second, is our responsibility to take that stuff into consideration, and then find an adequate and appropriate response as far as the time to seek and make sure that it is a parallel to the offense that they actually committed.
DF: Would you consider no longer seeking life without parole sentences?
AJ: It’s something we need to figure out. We’re convicting too many people and placing them on death row, essentially in solitary confinement, in these animalistic type conditions. And then 27 years later, we’re like, “Oops, sorry.” So we have to figure out, you know, what are our alternatives to life without parole?
DF: Reading your platform and hearing what you’ve said, it seems to me like your opposition to the death penalty is first, because of how many mistakes are made, but second, because it is remarkably cruel. And I’m unclear as to why a life without parole sentence is any more humane.
AJ: Let’s make sure I’m clear. I’m not saying it’s more humane. What I’m saying is that I believe that it is different than someone receiving a death sentence. You can’t exonerate someone who is already deceased. If someone’s sitting in jail, obviously, that’s something that we want to prohibit.
I had a young man that came from Missouri. He spent 27 years in a life sentence without parole where they were able to determine, “Hey, this, there was evidence that was withheld by the prosecutor.” However, he was alive and he had the ability to be taken off of life without parole. Now, I’m not saying life without parole is something we’re absolutely going to use because, like you said, our main goal is to end excessive punishment. However, if there are some rare occasions, there may be some evidence or something that led to looking at life without parole, but not the death sentence.
DF: You’ve alluded to prosecutorial misconduct. Do you have plans for how your office would prosecute its own historical wrongdoing or the chronic abuse that continue to occur inside Harris County jails?
AJ: We will be holding everybody accountable. Historically what we’ve seen is the people with the most power—the prosecutors, police officers, jailers, and individuals who are elected officials—have been held to the lowest standard. And what we’re saying is that at the very minimum we’ll hold everybody to the same standard. So if we have a prosecutor in our office, who is found to have withheld evidence or to have intentionally done something [wrong] on a case, we will hold that individual accountable. Same thing with police officers. We will always support our great police officers, and there are some great ones, but we will be holding them accountable as if they were a regular civilian without a badge.
DF: After your term is completed, what do you think constituents should expect in terms of change?
AJ: Data and transparency are going to drive our entire office. What are our incarceration numbers looking like? What is the makeup of our Harris County jail? Have we decreased violent offenses? Have we increased the number of victims who have been able to move forward in life even though they went through something harsh or traumatic? And then being able to move forward with a strong and rebuilt Harris County district attorney’s office because right now it’s decaying every single day. The turnover rate is astronomically high, there’s a lack of leadership.
DF: So can you commit at this stage to what you’d like to see?
AJ: Like, population, as far as number wise?
DF: Well, you’ve talked about being evidence-based and data-driven, and I’m curious if you have benchmarks for where you’d like to be.
AJ: A big goal will be trying to get the incarceration rates down 40 to 50 percent within that four-year period. And I know it’s a reach, but we intend to support felony cash bail reform, which I believe will keep people who are just poor or suffering from some type of mental health issue from just being in jail because they can’t afford to get out. I think that’s going to cut our incarceration rates significantly.
DF: We’ve talked a lot about you and your ideas, but you’ve also spoken to the greater movement to end mass incarceration. How will you empower activists and community members to create lasting change in Harris County?
AJ: We want to open up the lines of communication between the DA’s office and our community. We’ll be breaking our office into teams of three that will parallel each district we have in our city council. There will be three teams of prosecutors who live in that area who will attend civic club meetings and participate in school programs. Essentially we’ll be creating tentacles of communication throughout the districts in Harris County, and doing it within the areas that our prosecutors actually live and raise their children.
I don’t think we’ve ever had a sense of communication, a sense of transparency. And it’s refreshing for community members to see that and understand that these are our goals and that they have a line of communication back to us because I believe justice looks different in every area.