Pat Lykos believes in the rule of law. She loves ancient history — particularly Greek history, which she often references in conversation. She laughs easily and loudly. And since she became the first female district attorney of Harris County in 2009, she has brought about a sea change in what many considered the tough-on-crime capital of Texas.
Lykos took over as DA after the headline-making resignation of her long-time predecessor, Chuck Rosenthal, who was embroiled in controversy over using his county office for campaign work and his official e-mail to send and receive pornographic and racist messages. Under Rosenthal, Harris County developed a reputation as one of the harshest prosecutorial jurisdictions in the state, sending many defendants to death row and landing long sentences.
Since Lykos has taken charge, though, that reputation has mellowed. As she told the Tribune last week, she has ordered the police not to seek possession charges against defendants with small amounts of drugs, and she has established a Post-Conviction Review Section to investigate inmates' claims of innocence. But that, she says, doesn't mean Harris County isn't still tough on crime.
The video interview, conducted at her office, is below; an edited transcript of the conversation follows.
TT: Talk about the massive scope of the Harris County district attorney’s job.
Lykos: We’re the third-largest county in the nation, and we have 34 municipalities, one of which is the fourth-largest city in the nation, the city of Houston. We have 1,800 square miles — compare that to, say, Rhode Island, which has 1,500 square miles. And our population is 4.1 million, which is greater than the population of 24 states in our country. And we are the global energy population of the world. You look at the ship channel, the petrochemical industry, the aerospace, NASA, the medical center — truly, we’re the engine that drives Texas. So we attract the best and the brightest, but we’re also a magnet for the worst of predators.
I'd gone from law enforcement to practicing as a litigator in civil, criminal and family law to being a judge for all those years and having a passion for the law. Most of the people I brought in with me are former prosecutors and defense attorneys, some of whom were judges. It was kind of a melding, if you will. "Somebody ought to do something." Well, we’re the somebodies, and we’re doin’ it.
TT: Has Harris County’s tough-on-crime attitude changed?
Lykos: Make no mistake: We are tough on crime. But we’re focusing on violent crime. We’re focusing on the predators. When you have finite resources, you have to marshal them and utilize them in the most effective way possible to protect your people, and that’s what we’re doing.
We now have a policy that we will not file a drug charge unless there’s one one-hundredth of a gram, because that’s the smallest amount that can be tested twice. Previous to that, people were being arrested if they had a flake on their lip or mucus extruding from their nose and it tested positive. But then the evidence was destroyed. So what we’ve asked for and are requiring is that there be sufficient quantity that it can be tested twice, because that’s a due process issue. As a result, the number of arrests for possession of less than 1 gram, which in effect is less than one one-hundredth of a gram, has declined considerably. So we’ve reduced the jail population by about 3,000 arrests this year for that offense.
Now stop and think: Those officers are not being taken out of service, and these people aren’t booked into jail. Booking and releasing people from jail is quite complex, and it’s labor-intensive. The officers are now out there on the streets, and the arrests that they’re making for burglary of habitation and buildings has risen. So what we’ve done by this is made Harris County safer. I want to put the worst of the worst in our jail. I want to put the gang bangers in there who say they own the night, because we’re going to shine the light of day on them.
TT: Talk about mental health care and criminal justice.
Lykos: In the late '70s, there was this great movement to deinstitutionalize our mental institutions, and so instead of the state housing and caring for people, they’re living under bridges. And we have quite a large homeless population, a third of whom are incapable mentally of caring for themselves. And so they cycle through our jail. Most of them are victims of crime, so they end up in the emergency room. What I’m hoping to do, because they get arrested on nuisance offenses — relieving themselves in public, trespassing, things like that — is to have the foundations, the NGOs, MHMR [Mental Health and Mental Retardation], create residential treatment centers for these individuals where they can reside in what they call single-room occupancy. Medical providers are on staff, and they’ll have their nutrition — it will be sort of a custodial type of facility, so that they’re cared for. And most of these people are eligible for SSI and Medicaid and so forth, so it can actually pay for itself. It’s just a matter of putting all the pieces together. What happens is these individuals keep getting arrested over and over again, they keep getting rediagnosed over and over again, and we’ve squandered so many resources and haven’t really helped them to any sense of normality, so I think it’s a moral imperative.
TT: Why did you establish the Post-Conviction Review unit?
Lykos: I think every major district attorney’s office needs it. We have 50,000 felony cases a year filed in Harris County on average and over 80,000 misdemeanor cases. You can’t have that volume without errors being made. Plus, you’re aware of the debacle we had with the crime lab some years ago. Public trust and confidence in the system is everything. If you’re to have civil order, you have to have the public trust the system. They have to have confidence that it’s fair, that the law is applied equally. So I created this Post-Conviction Review Section, and it is separate and apart from the appellate division and reports directly to the first assistant [DA]. So they’re completely independent to investigate all claims of actual innocence.
TT: Could exposing flaws in the system damage public trust?
Lykos: To the contrary. Transparency, I think, is everything. I’m a very conservative individual. I believe the government exists to protect the people. That’s why we surrender some of our divinely endowed rights, for law and order. But it’s got to be fair, and so when we acknowledge that errors have been made and resolve to do better in the future and to learn from past mistakes, then that increases confidence.
TT: What lessons have you learned from innocence cases so far?
Lykos: The lab, for one thing, is absolutely critical. And to use science more than we have in the past. You see, when an innocent person is convicted, that’s truly a triple tragedy: The individual is wrongly imprisoned, the victim and society have no justice, and the criminal is free and goes on to commit more offenses.
TT: What's your vision for criminal justice in Harris County?
Lykos: It’s the preservation of civil order; it’s the protection of our people; it’s being the sword and shield. But trust and fairness are the bedrock. It’s the rule of law.