Harris County, Texas DA Pat Lykos was one of the prosecutors I praised in Reason last summer.
In 2008 Pat Lykos, a self-described Goldwater-Reagan Republican who supports the death penalty, was elected as chief law enforcement officer of Harris County, Texas, the county that has executed more people than any other, in a state that has executed more people than any other. In fact, under the leadership of former D.A. Johnny B. Holmes—a handlebar-mustached, lock-’em-up tough guy whom the Los Angeles Times once called “the killingest prosecutor” in the country—Harris County by itself sent more people to death row than the 49 states that aren’t Texas.
So Lykos would seem to be an unlikely criminal justice reformer. But upon taking office she set up her own team to review prior convictions for mistakes, similar to Craig Watkins’ unit in Dallas . . .
Lykos has initiated three exonerations so far. In 2010 the Innocence Project of Texas gave Lykos its Honesty and Integrity in Prosecution Award. The organization’s spokesman, Jeff Blackburn, told The Daily Beast earlier this year that “Harris County was the standard bearer of everything bad in criminal justice” until Lykos came along. Under her leadership, Blackburn said, the county “is becoming the single most powerful example of how to change this system and make it work right.”
Naturally, then, Lykos is now facing a challenge from her own party.
Pat Lykos promised in 2008 to change the culture at the Harris County District Attorney’s office, and she has.
The new direction has not pleased everyone. The first-term incumbent drew an opponent from her own party campaigning on a simple message: The office is going the wrong way.
Lykos argues she is a reformer with three years of improvements under her belt while Mike Anderson, a popular 30-year veteran of the courthouse, is trying to convince voters the machine used to be better run.
“A prosecutor needs to run that office,” said Anderson, who was an assistant Harris County district attorney for 16 years before spending 12 years as a felony criminal court judge.
“It’s an enormous undertaking for anybody,” Anderson said. “It would be very hard for anybody who has never been a prosecutor and never tried a case as a prosecutor to run that office.” . . .
Anderson has attacked Lykos for DIVERT, a program she created that allows the equivalent of deferred adjudication for first offense DWIs, and her “trace case” policy, which lessened penalties for possession of trace amounts of crack cocaine or crack pipes.
Lykos says the trace case policy has lowered the jail population by 1,000 inmates and freed up resources for more severe crimes. . . .
Sheryl Berg, a state Republican Executive Committee member in Senate district 11, said she supports Anderson.
“I said it’s time for new leadership,” Berg said. “And I said I thought he was the ideal candidate for that position.”
She also denied that a fight at the top of the ticket is bad for the party.
“Robust competition brings out the better candidate and brings out better voter turnout,” she said.
Valoree Swanson, another Republican Executive Committee member who is supporting Anderson, said Lykos needs to be replaced.
“She’s a moderate who is soft on crime and is rude to people who work under her,” Swanson said. “It really hurts her that she was never a prosecutor, a lot of her policies are bad policies.”
Lykos also recently received a vote of no confidence from the Houston police unions for the trace policy. Lykos has said pursuing felony charges for trace amounts is not only wasteful (she says she wants to prosecute cartels, not crack pipes), it’s problematic because there often isn’t enough of the drug for both the prosecution and the defense to test it. The cops of course hate the policy because arresting petty users is a hell of a lot easier than arresting major dealers. And when you don’t charge the users, they can’t pad their stats for those lucrative federal anti-drug grants (and, if Houston is similar to what we’ve seen in Atlanta and New York, for raises and promotions).
Lykos is not without her problems. Her office is currently the subject of a grand jury investigation over the accuracy of portable DUI breath test units. Lykos herself appears to be concerned about the problem, but her office is apparently continuing to process DUI cases based on the tests, anyway. But the intra-party anger seems to stem mostly from her efforts to change the culture in the Harris County DA’s office.