Nidia Ventura loves her job, but two months into a new role as a felony prosecutor at the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, she almost quit.
Within months of joining the District Attorney’s Office, Ventura was promoted to the position of “felony 3” prosecutor, the junior role on the three-person teams that staff each of Harris County’s felony courts. It is one of the most demanding jobs in the agency, with grueling work hours and a never-ending load of about 1,200 cases, and it didn’t take long for her to buckle under the strain.
The stream of arsons, attempted kidnappings and assaults grows on a daily basis. The crushing caseload causes Ventura to worry that she’s giving short shrift to victims, defendants and her own family — an agonizing burden for the 26-year-old.
“Many of my coworkers have experienced the same thing, where they just close the door and they’re working and they’re crying,” Ventura said. “But you’ve got to be here and it has to get done, because nobody else is going to do it. No one’s going to do your job for you.”
Ventura and her colleagues are caught in a punishing cycle weighing on the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, an agency struggling to keep up with steep caseloads, rising turnover rates and mounting frustration about long hours.
Local prosecutors and defense lawyers point to the heavy workloads as a key factor driving Harris County’s most pressing criminal justice challenges, including a much-maligned jail, backlogged courts and even community safety.
Harris County leaders are well aware of the problem. In 2019, following an outcry from local prosecutors, the Harris County Commissioner’s Court contracted with PFM, a private consulting group, to analyze workloads at the District Attorney’s Office.
The results, released in a 2022 report to virtually no fanfare from county officials, were unequivocal.
“The current caseload and workload of each HCDAO prosecutor are unsustainable,” the consultants wrote. “This yields a negative effect on staff retention and morale and impedes the ability to achieve the county’s justice and safety goals.”
Yet District Attorney Kim Ogg and the Commissioner’s Court continue to wrestle over how to alleviate the burden on prosecutors.
Ogg maintains that the commissioners need to dramatically increase funding for her agency, allowing her to hire more prosecutors. The commissioners, meanwhile, have argued Ogg should operate her office more efficiently before receiving significantly more money.
For their part, PFM’s consultants found Ogg’s office “must make operational improvements and add staff.”
As the stalemate drags on, seasoned lawyers say their workloads have doubled or tripled since coming to Harris County. Newer prosecutors describe workdays that begin as early as 3:30 a.m. and continue long into the night. Others quit from the strain.
Then, there’s Ventura. She still endures the daily grind, which the Houston Landing observed over 15 hours with her one Thursday this summer.
An early start
Ventura’s day begins at about 7 a.m. in a small, windowless office in the Harris County Criminal Justice Center in downtown Houston. It’s a charmless room, but she has added homey touches – a Tropical Sunrise Glade plug-in, for example, and the prayer candles dedicated to Taylor Swift and Harry Styles.
When she graduated from the South Texas College of Law in May 2022, Ventura had one goal in mind: to work at the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, where she interned as a law student. She fell in love with the agency during her time there, drawn to the office’s focus on serving victims. As an intern, she helped lawyers at hearings, assisted with Spanish translation and interacted with victims — experiences she called “formative.”
Now, as an assistant district attorney, she begins each day by reviewing the list of cases assigned to her overnight. These include two attempted car burglaries and a financial crime involving stolen checks. It’s a virtual rogue’s gallery, a doom scroll of the previous night’s activity in Houston, and a preview of what she will face in court later that morning.
As a junior felony prosecutor, Ventura says the high-stakes nature of her staggering caseload has given her job the reputation as the “worst position” in the District Attorney’s Office. At this moment, she is juggling about 1,200 cases, with 67 vying for her attention today alone. The number is, at times, overwhelming.
“If I had 400 cases, I could learn my docket in and out,” Ventura says. “I could be so much more hands-on with the cases.”
Academics and advocacy groups have long struggled to set standards for prosecutor caseloads. The American Bar Association and American Prosecutors Research Institute contend that local nuances, such as differing responsibilities by jurisdiction, make it impossible to establish national caseload guidelines.
In Harris County, that lack of clarity has contributed to the deadlock over funding for more prosecutors.
Ogg called the excessive caseloads her office’s “single most challenging problem” and linked it directly to understaffing. She said the workloads negatively impact a range of prosecutorial responsibilities.
“Trial readiness, evidence receipt, witness interviews — all of the things that it takes to get ready for trial take so much time, and with caseloads in the hundreds or even above 1,000, there’s no possible way for our lawyers to get to every piece of evidence in a case to evaluate it,” Ogg said.
In interviews with the Houston Landing, criminal defense lawyers acknowledged the county’s need for a larger, more efficient district attorney’s office.
“As many issues as I have with Kim Ogg, one of the things that I do agree with her (on) is that she does need more people,” said Murray Newman, president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association. “Having more boots on the ground and people that are working their cases and knowing them certainly could not hurt.”
Court’s in session
By 8:30 a.m., Ventura trades her lavender slides for heels and makes her way to Judge Lori Chambers Gray’s court.
Almost immediately upon stepping foot in the courtroom, defense lawyers descend on her. Aaron Holt, a lean, soft-spoken lawyer in a gray suit, approaches first. He asks Ventura for help getting his client, an arson defendant, out of jail and into a mental health treatment setting.
“This is kind of a strange situation,” Holt says. “Especially with the arson, given he was trying to light himself on fire and not the hotel room he was in.”
Ventura consults the defendant’s file on her laptop. She concedes that Holt’s client might need treatment, such as medication, but she’s not sure he’s going to continue taking that medication until trial — and that could present a community safety threat.
Within the span of one hour, she speaks with six defense attorneys about separate cases. At one point, five attorneys queue up behind Ventura, who hasn’t had enough time to thoroughly review all of their cases before coming to court.
Today is light, Ventura says: “There are days I never sit down.”
Soon, Chambers Gray begins bringing defendants in handcuffs and orange jail uniforms into her courtroom from custody. Some appear impassive and resigned. Others arrive eager to offer up information. A few talk over their defense lawyers, who shush their clients with a look or raised hand.
For about four hours, Ventura manages a carousel of deliberations with defense lawyers and the judge, with defendants filing in and out of the courtroom. Some cases receive no more than 10 minutes of attention.
“Not every case gets the amount of time it probably needs,” Ventura admits. “The difficult part is it might require attention, but there’s just not enough time in the day to get there.”
The deluge of cases can mean justice delayed — and perhaps even denied — in Harris County.
Local lawyers said excessive prosecutor workloads are contributing to lengthy delays in resolving cases, negatively affecting defendants and crime victims.
The PFM consultants found about half of Harris County misdemeanor and felony cases take more than a year to resolve. By comparison, model standards developed by the National Center for State Courts say 98 percent of felony cases should be resolved within a year, while 98 percent of misdemeanor cases should be disposed within six months.
“From a practical standpoint, it gets really old when you have cases (that are) 2 or 3 years old that the prosecutor can’t look at because they’re trying a 5 or 6 or 7-year-old case,” Houston defense lawyer Paul Morgan said.
For some defendants, a drawn-out criminal case can mean more time in Harris County’s jail, which, according to Texas Commission on Jail Standards regulators, is understaffed and inadequately patrolled.
Defense lawyers and criminal justice advocates also are concerned that overwhelmed prosecutors are not giving enough attention to cases.
The PFM consultants calculated that prosecutors spend an average of 6.6 hours working on each felony and 1.9 hours on a misdemeanor. While there are no national standards for how much time prosecutors should devote to a case, various studies and reports suggest Harris County prosecutors are falling well short of recommendations.
In turn, defense lawyers worry that prosecutors could be missing important elements of a criminal case, potentially leading to stiffer or unjust punishments for defendants.
Some defense lawyers and advocates also argued that prosecutors are taking too long to review evidence that shows a case should be dismissed. Roughly half of felony and misdemeanor cases dismissed in 2021 were pending for about a year, the PFM consultants found.
“Where are the guardrails?” asked Kevin Coker, CEO of Restoring Justice, a nonprofit that represents indigent defendants in Harris County. “How do you ensure that the cases are getting the proper care and attention that they need?”
Deep into the night
Ventura returns to her purple slides for the second half of her day, when she’s office-bound and wading through her crushing workload.
She starts with her docket to-do’s, tackling things that happened in the previous hours that require immediate follow-up. Then, she runs through her tasks for the coming days, such as calling victims and evaluating the strength of cases. Usually, those duties take up the whole afternoon and bleed into the evening.
Most nights, Ventura leaves at about 9 p.m. By now, the labyrinthine tunnels connecting the parking garage to the Criminal Justice Center are closed, so she walks through downtown Houston at night, after dark, alone most of the time.
“The motivator is making a difference, whether it be in the victim’s or in the defendant’s life,” Ventura said. “That’s the motivator to keep coming back every day, even when you don’t want to be here.”
For prosecutors, that drive is increasingly not enough to stay on the job. The PFM consultants found attrition rates in the District Attorney’s Office nearly doubled between 2018 and 2022, reaching about 20 percent last year.
Prosecutors told the consultants that heavy caseloads and long hours — issues exacerbated by the pandemic, which slowed down the justice system — ranked among the top burdens. To address those concerns, the PFM consultants recommended the county add 43 lawyers, a roughly 10 percent increase in the prosecutor staff, and fill dozens of vacancies.
At the moment, though, there’s no sign of dramatic changes in funding or operations on the horizon.
In 2019, Harris County commissioners narrowly voted to reject Ogg’s request for funding to hire about 100 new prosecutors. At the time, County Judge Lina Hidalgo said fulfilling Ogg’s request for more lawyers was “certainly not the most cost-effective way to decrease prosecutor caseloads.”
In the years since, Ogg has continued to request more positions, but in smaller numbers. At various points, most commissioners have pushed back against Ogg’s appeals for additional prosecutors, arguing her administration’s management of finances and operations must improve. In January, for example, Commissioner Rodney Ellis said he didn’t want to write a “blank check” to Ogg in response to her request for millions of dollars.
The PFM consultants, too, identified several inefficiencies in Ogg’s operation of the agency and provided recommendations to address them. The suggestions included quickly filling vacancies, analyzing more data, giving more cases to senior prosecutors and relying on seasoned lawyers to decide whether to accept charges from police.
Ogg said she has begun to make some of these changes, including redistributing cases from junior to senior prosecutors. However, that has not greatly alleviated Ventura’s burden.
In a quiet moment that evening, Ventura contemplates what drives her to plow through the crush of an average day, over and over again. She describes an aggravated assault she prosecuted involving a woman who was shot. After spending a weekend preparing for trial and working extensively with the victim and her son to testify, the defendant finally accepted a plea offer.
“Calling the victim and telling her, ‘You don’t have to relive this in front of all these people, you don’t have to relive it, you’re done, he took accountability, he’s gonna go away for 10 years, and he’s not going to come out and he’s not going to hurt you,’ she started crying,” Ventura says. “And it’s that. If I can do that, for more people, that’s what I want.”