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Reducing the coronavirus risk in jail

This is an obvious step to take.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez

More than 8,500 people are housed inside the Harris County jail, and thousands more move through the building and return to their communities each day to keep the criminal justice juggernaut running.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez likens the situation to three massive ships docked in downtown Houston. An outbreak of COVID-19 in this setting could be catastrophic to the region and overwhelm hospitals’ limited capacity to treat patients.

That’s why the sheriff overseeing the third largest jail system in the country is pushing for “bold action” to avert the potential fallout — he is seeking compassionate releases of hundreds of vulnerable people who pose a low risk to public safety. For that to happen, judges would need to sign off.

“Jails and prisons are fertile ground for the spread of infectious disease,” Gonzales said, noting that his staff has done “yeoman’s work to keep an outbreak at bay,” addressing hygiene and health concerns. “My nightmare scenario is that an outbreak happens at the county jail.”

But he said, “The standards we implement in the general community are either impossible to follow or hard to do in a jail setting. Our criminal justice system must become more aggressive in granting compassionate releases.”

And time is of the essence, he said.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo is on board and considers taking steps to mitigate an outbreak at the jail “a very high priority,” noting “this could spread like wildfire at the jail.” County officials and judges are discussing the matter and consulting the fine print of statutes that govern such measures to try to assess how to make it happen.

Hidalgo also said she’s looking at ways to limit the population at the county’s juvenile lockup.

“Were trying to do as much as is feasible and can be done in a safe way to have these people not packed in so close together,” she said.

Alex Bunin, the chief public defender for the county, said the situation is dire: “If you are in jail and … and facing charges for a nonviolent crime, that shouldn’t be a death sentence because you’re going to get cornonavirus.”

He said county leaders can give the sheriff the authority to release people on misdemeanors. Felony decisions, under normal circumstances, must come from the judges.

There are easy ways to prioritize who might be released – older inmates, pregnant women, immuno-compromised inmates, and the like. Bear in mind that if the jail becomes a hot spot for coronavirus, then everyone who works at the jail, everyone who provides goods and services to the jail, and everyone they come into contact with including their families, are put at risk. Are we serious about trying to contain this pandemic, or is all that just lip service? The question answers itself if you let it.

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8 Comments

  1. Ross says:

    That one’s on the judge. The defendant only asked for a reduction in bond from $60k to $30k.

    The judges have been the root cause of all of the issues on this topic, mostly because they were too lazy to determine an appropriate bond amount based on each defendant’s circumstances.

  2. Wolfgang says:

    HELP WITH BONDING LOGIC PLEASE

    (I am pretty familiar with many areas of civil law, not criminal, but I have trouble just following the reasoning here)

    Can you explain it to me, please:

    If the accused murderer can post bond (whatever the amount), he will get out anyhow, because that is the point of it all: Freedom before being proven guilty and convicted (if ever). So whether he is going to be out or not is nothing other than a question of money: HAVE IT and rot in the slammer for the time being or HAVE IT NOT and be released, pending trial or plea agreement.

    How is it logically going to “be on the judge” for waiving the money posting?

    Unless, of course, the bond amount is deliberately set so high that the charged person cannot possibly meet the requirement and stays in jail by default.

    Wouldn’t that be unconstitutional?

  3. Wolfgang says:

    Okay, I inverted that, so that’s on me.

    HAVE IT (the money for the bond) and be released; HAVE IT NOT, and rot in the slammer for now.

  4. C.L. says:

    Best way not to get Covid-19 while in jail ?

    Don’t end up in jail in the first place !

  5. Bill Daniels says:

    @ Wolfgang:

    The point of bond is to ensure that an accused person shows up to face the charges in court and not to abscond. A secondary, more ‘modern’ reason, is to hopefully discourage new criminal behavior while an accused is out on bond for another alleged crime.

    So hey, if you’ve got something to lose on the line, like maybe your tio put his house on the line, to work with a bail bondsman who also puts money on the line and has both interest in seeing that you show up AND an enforcement mechanism to see that you do, chances are, you’ll show up for your court dates.

    Judge Desean letting a murder defendant out with NO bond? What motivation does the defendant have NOT to run, and NOT to commit new crimes while doing so? None sound about right?

    @ C.L.:

    Keep talking like that and you’ll get branded as a right wing, law and order Trump supporter around here!

  6. Jason Hochman says:

    I have to say that I am glad that I don’t work as a jail officer. I did that job for four years, saw cases of TB, MRS, pneumonia, and all kinds of other conditions. Fortunately for me, I was never sick that often during that period, just a few colds here and there. But it is not a fun job. The boring days are the good days.

  7. […] Gonzalez had been working on this for the past week, trying to get individual judges to allow some inmates to be released, but the […]