Driven by evidence-based prosecution, Middleton joins a wave of prosecutors reforming the role of district attorneys
By Matt Keyser
National Partnership for Pretrial Justice
Nov. 3, 2022
When Brian Middleton announced he was running for district attorney in Fort Bend County, a historical Republican stronghold in southeast Texas, he was met with skepticism.
From his friends. From his parents. From his wife.
He was running to replace retiring District Attorney John Healey, a Republican who had held the office for 26 years. Middleton’s opponent in the election was a respected, well-funded Republican judge whom Healey had endorsed. Middleton, a Democrat, was also vying to become the first Black district attorney in a county that, until 1956, held all-white primaries.
“I went against the grain, against the advice of people who I respect and love, and I took a chance,” Middleton recalled.
He listened to the concerns of his family and friends, but the 46-year-old lawyer felt “something inside of me that thought it was possible.”
Middleton announced his candidacy at a time that Fort Bend County was experiencing unprecedented growth as it developed into one of the most diverse counties in the United States. He campaigned on the promise of bail reform, implementing second-chance programs, and reducing trial delays – ideas that appealed to voters in the rapidly changing landscape. They handed him a decisive victory over his Republican challenger of more than 19,000 votes.
“It’s surreal and hasn’t sunk in yet,” Middleton told reporters on election night. “I have a desire and a passion to do this job.”
Now, even as some reform-minded prosecutors face pushback from proponents of returning to the status quo, Middleton is getting a sign that his constituents are ready for the next steps forward: He faces no Republican opponent.
Middleton is among a wave of prosecutors elected across the nation on a platform of reimagining how the criminal justice system operates. These reforms include reducing reliance on mass supervision for those on probation and parole; expanding pretrial diversion programs to keep people from being introduced into the criminal justice system; and ending the use of cash bail for people charged with low-level, non-violent misdemeanors. Even without new legislation or judicial orders, prosecutors have the discretionary decision-making power to implement their own new ideas and policies.
Democrats and Republicans alike are eager to open the black box of the prosecutor’s office to better understand how this decision-making can help improve community safety and improve outcomes across the board.
However, research on the field is limited. To help to close that gap, Arnold Ventures is providing $7.4 million in support for 14 grants across 40 prosecutors’ offices across the country. These include Democrats like Middleton, Republicans like District Attorney Francis Chardo in Dauphin County, Pa., and independents like District Attorney Matthew Fogal in Franklin County, Pa.
“This support will help inform policy and practices and expand our understanding of how to build safe and racial just outcomes,” said Rebecca Silber, director of criminal justice at Arnold Ventures. “It will also lift up the research-prosecutor-community partnerships that sit at the core of these projects and are critical to building safety and justice.”
Middleton’s office is involved in that funding. A group of researchers from the Texas Southern University Foundation in Houston will analyze the effectiveness and cost associated with the office’s pretrial diversion programs. The two-and-a-half-year project is also coordinating with six other prosecutor offices across the nation.
“Prosecutors have operated behind the veil while attention has mainly focused on police and our correctional system,” said Dr. Howard Henderson, the founding director of the Center of Justice Research and member of the project. “Everyone forgot about that cog in the wheel that probably has more power than any other entity in the system.”
‘That’s the way it should be’
As the nation continues to grapple with a spike in violent crime, this research will help guide policymakers eager for new ideas and evidence around the best ways to build safe communities. The findings may also help deflect critics who have claimed without evidence that new prosecutor policies are driving the increase in crime.
Middleton, however, has been largely immune to such attacks during his first term, even as Fort Bend County has seen a rise in crime.
Like Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, whom he considers a friend, Middleton has implemented programs that divert people charged with DWI, drug possession, and other low-level, non-violent offenses out of the criminal justice system and into programs that focus on rehabilitation. But Middleton has also been able to reach across the political aisle in the name of justice and fairness.
He’s worked to reach out to the county’s youth, specifically by creating a foundation that provides guidance and mentorship to those young adults in hopes it will deter them from criminal justice involvement.
He regularly meets with other elected leaders, such as the county judge, the sheriff, and constables to discuss the happenings within their booming county.
“I’m so honored to see a district attorney who is tough and compassionate at the same time, doing the right thing by the Fort Bend County residents,” County Judge K.P. George told the Houston Chronicle in 2020.
Former Precinct 3 Constable Wayne Thompson, a Republican, said of Middleton’s approach to the job: “That’s the way it should be. We don’t enforce the laws based on political party view.”
‘The Best in Texas’
When Middleton took over as the lead prosecutor in Fort Bend County, he promptly fired 15 employees and sought to hire a more diverse workforce. With his new staff, he instilled a motto: the Best in Texas.
“I believe prosecutors should be the most well-informed attorneys in the courtroom,” Middleton said. “They should know more about the case and the law than the judge and the defense attorneys.”
He’s implemented monthly trainings that focus on new and updated laws, improving trial skills, and staying abreast of the latest in scientific research used when investigating cases.
“That’s all part of being the best in Texas,” he said.
Middleton brings a unique vision to the office from a decorated legal career. A native Houstonian, Middleton never planned to follow his father into law. After graduating from the University of Houston with an economics degree, he enrolled in the Thurgood Marshall School of Law, where he graduated with honors in 1997.
His career includes working with the Office of the Attorney General of Texas, where he worked habeas cases for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. He worked with the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the state’s highest criminal appeals court, as a briefing attorney. He had a brief stint in Fort Bend County as an assistant district attorney under then-District Attorney Healey. After leaving the district attorney’s office for private practice, Middleton said he had ideas of how he would improve the office if ever elected.
In one instance while serving as a defense attorney, Middleton recalled prepping all weekend for a trial only to have the prosecutor dismiss the case moments before trial began. Middleton said it was a disrespectful act to both him and his client, who had the charges lingering for months.
“I never want that to happen to anyone else,” he said.
He’s made an effort as district attorney to rehumanize people who are charged with crimes, who are — legally — innocent until proven guilty.
“People always focus on police brutality, but I always knew it was the whole damn system,” he said. “It was the judges. It was the prosecutors. It was the probation officers. It was the clerks in the courtroom. From the top down, they all mistreat these individuals.”
He tells his prosecutors: “Don’t hang these cases over people’s heads when you know you can’t prove it. You can’t win every case. It’s not our job to seek convictions; it’s to seek justice.”
Middleton’s work in his first term clearly made an impression on politicians and voters in Fort Bend County. Up for reelection this year, he is unopposed and has essentially secured another four-year term that will carry him through 2026.
“When you look at the work Middleton is doing in Fort Bend County, it looks like he has one of the model prosecution offices,” said Henderson with TSU. “But more importantly, he has an ideology that is supportive of science, and he appears to be using it to make better decisions. And my hat’s off to him for that, because a prosecutor has discretion to go in any direction they choose.”
Prosecutor of the Year
Four years ago, Middleton found himself in church doubting his decision to run for district attorney. He felt overwhelmed, ready to drop out of the race. But the preacher’s sermon that day struck him.
Never give up, the preacher spoke, and when you feel lost and that everyone is against you, God is still on your side.
“I knew the message that day was directed at me,” Middleton said.
Rejuvenated, he ramped up his campaign and soon raised $700,000. Weeks later, voters elected him to office.
Four years later, in the heat of another election season, Middleton is focusing on his second term rather than campaigning for his job. When asked what type of message that sends that he won reelection unopposed, he said: “I think it speaks to the work that I’ve done. And I think people respect the work that I’ve done.”
It’s not just the voters who have noticed. While sitting in his office, overlooking the Fort Bend Criminal Justice Center, Middleton reaches down to his coffee table that bears a wooden plaque that reads: “The Criminal Justice Section of the State Bar of Texas Honors Brian M. Middleton as Prosecutor of the Year 2022.”
He smiles, proud of the plaque and the work required to achieve such an award.
“When I accepted it,” he said, “I told the crowd: ‘We have to do what’s right. And we have to put aside partisanship and do the right thing — at all times.”