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70 Million – Reform Activists and a New DA Find Common Ground

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70 Million

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. 70 Million reporter, Ruxandra Guidi, chronicles how activists and reformers are succeeding in cutting the jail population, diverting drug arrests, and increasing accountability for local police.  { TRANSCRIPT BELOW }

70 Million is made possible by a grant from the Safety and Justice Challenge at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The 70 Million podcast is a production of Lantigua Williams & Co.

Image Credit: Ruxandra Guidi Image Caption: A bail bonds agency welcomes business next door to the Harris County District Attorney’s Office. A federal judge recently ruled the county’s bail practices unconstitutional.

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Special thanks this week to the Omnia Foundation for supporting Making Contact’s Prison issues programs!

Featuring:

  • Durrel Douglas, Co-Founder of Houston Justice
  • Shekira Dennis, Co-Founder of Houston Justice
  • Kim Ogg, Harris County District Attorney
  • Sandra Guerra Thompson, Legal Rights Advocate at the Criminal Justice Institute – University of Houston
  • Terrance “TK” Koontz, Organizer with Texas Organizing Project
  • Debra Schmidt, Assistant Chief at Harris County Sheriff’s Department
  • Joseph Gamaldi, Houston Police Officers’ Union

Credits:

  • Reporter: Ruxandra Guidi
  • Editor: Jen Chien
  • Audio Engineer: Luis Gil
  • Associate Producer: Oluwakemi Aladesuyi
  • Marketing Specialist: Kate Krosschell
  • Resource Guide Writer:  Amy Alexander
  • Production Assistant: Paula Mardo
  • Creator and Executive Producer: Juleyka Lantigua-Williams
  • Series Host: Mitzi Miller

Making Contact Staff:

  • Host: Monica Lopez
  • Producers: Anita Johnson, Salima Hamirani, Monica Lopez
  • Executive Director: Lisa Rudman
  • Audience Engagement Director/Web Editor: Sabine Blaizin
  • Outreach and Distribution Assistant: Dylan Heuer

More Information:

TRANSCRIPT

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.

70 Million S1E3: Reform Activists and a New DA Find Common Ground. 2

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

70 Million S1E3: Reform Activists and a New DA Find Common Ground. 3

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.

70 Million S1E3: Reform Activists and a New DA Find Common Ground. 4

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 re

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

— 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

  1. 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.

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