Revolutionizing Justice: Harris County’s Groundbreaking Approach to Tackling a 145,000 Case Backlog and Reforming the System

By Harris County District Attorney’s Office

The COVID-19 pandemic caused most courts to come to a halt in 2020 and created an unprecedented backlog of cases in Harris County. At the start of 2022, the Harris County District Attorney’s Office faced a backlog of 145,050 cases, with only 367 prosecutors.

Our office developed an Emergency Case Backlog Reduction Plan that considered funding issues, limited prosecutor numbers, multiple buildings, and courts not fully operating in person.

The first stage of the plan was to craft a strategy to review more than 30,000 misdemeanors and state jail felonies under a new paradigm, in which every possible non-victim case was considered for an alternative solution instead of jail, prison, or formal supervision by the Community Corrections and Supervision Department, and secure funding for prosecutors to review these cases through an after-hours overtime program.

In addition to diversions, the Harris County District Attorney’s Office created a dedicated homicide division, bringing together 12 seasoned prosecutors to form a specialized team dedicated to trying homicide cases languishing in the criminal justice system. This solution places experienced prosecutors on the front lines in the Harris County District Courts to push some of the most violent offenders’ cases to trial or plea.

The Harris County District Attorney’s Office Misdemeanor Trial Bureau has diverted thousands of non-violent, misdemeanor offenders into pre-trial diversion programs without harming our community’s public safety or the offender’s criminal record.

Award-Winning Mental Health Diversion Program

In 2018, District Attorney Kim Ogg and other leaders worked together to fund the Judge Ed Emmett Mental Health Diversion Center to address the needs of mentally ill individuals arrested for nonviolent misdemeanor crimes. Historically, these low-level offenders spent months in jail and returned to the streets without treatment. They often were injured or declined further treatment while jailed and were often jailed repeatedly.

Since the program’s inception, more than 8,000 mentally ill offenders have been taken by law enforcement to the Ed Emmett Mental Health Diversion Center, saving taxpayers millions of dollars. Across Harris County, 86 law enforcement agencies, working with prosecutors, now divert these offenders to the Mental Health Diversion Center instead of jail. At the center, they are assessed by mental health professionals and connected with treatment providers. Stabilization of these mentally ill individuals has proven successful in reducing recidivism.

“The program gets to the root of what is causing criminal behavior with a holistic approach to keep individuals out of the criminal justice system, not just today but forever,” Harris County DA, Kim Ogg

The Mental Health Jail Diversion Program was awarded the 2022 County Best Practices Award from the Texas Association of Counties for its outstanding results in keeping the community safer by helping mentally ill people instead of facing criminal charges.

In addition to the award, the association called on other counties to replicate the innovation in their communities.

“This award is proof that we are able to balance reform and public safety,” Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said. “It also has the benefit of being the right thing to do, and it saves taxpayers millions of dollars.”

For every $1 spent on diversion, Harris County saves $5.54 on criminal justice costs, a recent study determined. As of May, when the program was nominated for the award, over 5,200 diversions had been counted, helping to ease jail crowding. By year’s end, that total surpassed 7,000.

Ending the School-to-Prison Pipeline

The Harris County District Attorney’s Office administration established that the primary goal of the Juvenile Division was to end the school-to-prison pipeline for nonviolent offenders while protecting the community from juveniles charged with violent crimes.

In partnership with the Harris County Juvenile Probation Department, the Harris County District Attorney’s Office offers six pre-petition diversion programs as an alternative to court proceedings for juvenile offenders accused of minor, nonviolent offenses. Juvenile offenders must complete treatment, counseling, and/or community service under these supervised programs to avoid a criminal record.

Prosecutors now consider the nature of the juvenile, distinguishing youthful misbehaviors from violent actions. Individual factors such as age, disability, mental health and child welfare status are also considered when determining whether to charge or divert a juvenile offender.

Juvenile court referrals have dropped nearly in half since 2018. Before implementing the juvenile diversion programs, about 70 percent of juvenile cases sent to court were for misdemeanors. Now, only about 15 percent of the juvenile cases entering Harris County’s courts are misdemeanor cases.

Second Chance Driving While Intoxicated Pre-Trial Intervention

This post-charge diversion program offers a second chance to first-time offenders charged with DWI. Potential clients undergo assessments and participate in developing an individualized treatment plan based on their unique needs along with stringent conditions for a dismissal of their case.

14,481 individuals have completed a Driving While Intoxicated Pre-Trial Intervention Program. (2017–2022)

Misdemeanor Marijuana Diversion Program

The Harris County District Attorney’s Office uses prosecutorial discretion to offer pre-trial diversion programs to offenders in possession of misdemeanor amounts of marijuana as decided on a case-by-case basis.

This approach uses limited resources responsibly to increase public safety and offer individuals who commit the nonviolent crime of possessing a misdemeanor amount of marijuana an alternative to where they are not stigmatized by a criminal record that limits their employment, education and housing opportunities.

Misdemeanor Veterans’ Court Treatment (VTC)

VTC is for veterans on probation who report to Veterans’ Court monthly for extra assistance and community resources designed to rehabilitate offenders with military service backgrounds. Since 2017, more than 160 individuals have completed this program

Clean & Green Program

Since 2018, 2,902 individuals have completed the Clean & Green program. Those charged with nonviolent, low-level offenses can avoid a criminal record that could limit job, housing, and education opportunities. Clean & Green contributes 600 volunteer hours per month to remediating illegally dumped trash.

Prosecutor-led Diversion Mapping

Interested in exploring additional diversion programs? The National District Attorneys Association (NDAA) and the Urban Institute jointly developed a Prosecutor-Led Diversion Map. This first-of-its-kind catalogue and interactive map of prosecutor-led diversion programs from across the country is meant to inform a wide range of stakeholders, including fellow prosecutors’ offices, on the proactive and innovative work being accomplished by local prosecutors.

Prosecutor-led diversion is just one approach at the discretion of prosecutors. It’s used as an alternative to traditional prosecution and can include approaches focused on addressing behavioral health issues, responding to a person’s first contact with the justice system, processing traffic or alcohol-related offenses, or providing a restorative justice alternative for offenses where there is a victim. Prosecutor-led diversion has existed for decades and while programs exist all over the country, there is variation across many fundamental characteristics of the diversion approaches.

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National District Attorneys Association

The National District Attorneys Association (NDAA) is the oldest and largest national organization representing state and local prosecutors in the country.