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Still trying to do something about the coronavirus risk in the jail

Time is extremely limited for this.

A federal judge Friday asked lawyers to hammer out a plan for releasing about 1,000 indigent inmates detained on bonds of $10,000 or less amid fear of a COVID-19 outbreak at the third largest jail in the country. The judge indicated she would take up the fate of another 3,400 people in the Harris County Jail awaiting trial on higher bonds next week.

The instructions by Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal came in response to an emergency request Friday by the team of lawyers who challenged the county’s bail policies. They argued that thousands of poor defendants trapped in the jail simply because they couldn’t afford bail should be granted immediate bail hearings or be released.

The pleading laid a grave situation at the hands of a judge who has made many tough decisions in the criminal justice realm.

“A public health catastrophe of historic proportion looms in the Harris County Jail. Only this Court can avert it,” the motion says. “With every passing hour, the risk of disaster increases. All eyes turn to this Court in this dire moment.”

The bail lawsuit motion for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction seeks release of about half the jail’s population of nearly 8,000 if they cannot be afforded immediate bail hearings. This would mean thousands of people charged with nonviolent offenses would be allowed to await trial on bond outside the facility, as they would otherwise be able to do if they could post cash bond.

Other local officials, including the sheriff, state district judges and top county official have been tackling the potential public health threat from different angles over the past two weeks, seeking compassionate releases of medically vulnerable inmates, bonds for those accused of nonviolent offenses, or some cross-section of the two groups.

But early Friday lawyers from Civil Rights Corps, the Texas Civil Rights Project and pro bono counsel from Susman Godfrey, stepped in with a constitutional approach to the jail problem that could allow much more drastic cuts in the population than the compassionate release plans outlined by the sheriff and the county judge.

Rosenthal asked the lawyers for indigent defendants and attorneys for the sheriff and the county to assemble by Monday a list of thousands of people who might qualify for release based on their bond amounts, charges, criminal histories and risk factors. In addition, the judge indicated she would move swiftly on a subset of the indigent defendants who can’t pay their bond. She asked for confirmation that 1,000 or so people being held on bonds of up to $10,000 were not subject to other holds or detainers.

The sheriff and county officials told the judge that they had no objection to this first group being released if they fit the judge’s criteria. According to a lawyer for the plaintiffs, the only agency that opposed the release of those facing $10,000 bonds was the Texas Attorney General’s Office.

Sheriff Gonzalez had been working on this for the past week, trying to get individual judges to allow some inmates to be released, but the process was slow. County Judge Lina Hidalgo had been working on an executive order that would have released a larger number of inmates, but she shelved it after objections from the Attorney General’s office; you can read that story for the details. And I know, we’re all going to be murdered in our sleep by a rampaging horde of pot smokers and check kiters, but let’s do pause for a moment and consider what the alternative might be:

In another effort to address the issue, Harris Health System leaders on Friday sent a letter asking for the release of defendants with nonviolent offenses.

The county medical system’s president and CEO stressed that an outbreak in the Harris County Jail is not a matter of if, but when.

“The Harris County Jail and other large correctional facilities pose a real and immediate danger to the health of the community,” Esmaeil Porsa said. “An even limited outbreak of COVID-19 in the Harris County Jail has the potential to overwhelm our already overburdened hospital system. If this happened — and the likelihood is high — it could leave many vulnerable people in our community without access to care.”

Porsa urged the county to consider prioritizing inmates over 60 with pre-existing conditions such as cancer, diabetes, asthma and chronic pulmonary disease, heart disease and HIV. Jails are known to have higher concentrations of people in the high-risk group, he said.

He added that social distancing is nearly impossible, with dorm settings holding between 20 and 60 people in a close space. And quarantine is also unfeasible when inmates are booked in and out of the jail on a daily basis.

We could just let them all die, I suppose. I’m sure Dan Patrick would approve. I would rather not do that.

UPDATE: And now Greg Abbott is involved, and I’m confused.

As the first Harris County inmate tested positive for COVID-19 Sunday, Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order blocking any release of inmates from jails and prisons accused or convicted of violent crime.

“Releasing dangerous criminals from jails into the streets is not the right solution and doing so is now prohibited by law by this declaration,” Abbott said at an afternoon briefing.

The news comes as federal, state and local government officials continued to squabble over details of what a jail release would look like as they attempted to prevent a catastrophic outbreak among the approximately 8,000 people incarcerated at the downtown facility.

The governor was referencing Attorney General Ken Paxton’s motion to prevent Harris County from releasing 4,000 people awaiting trial on felonies, saying such a move would “allow dangerous criminals to roam freely and commit more crimes during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.”

“Protecting Texans is one of my highest priorities. It is vital that we maintain the integrity of our criminal justice system and continue to enforce state law during this pandemic,” Paxton said. “My office will not stand for any action that threatens the health and safety of law-abiding citizens.”

Hours earlier a federal judge convened an emergency hearing to address plans that plaintiffs in a federal civil rights case had hammered out over the weekend with lawyers for the sheriff and the county judge to release inmates accused of some nonviolent offense.

An official from Paxton’s office appeared telephonically at that hearing and said the AG planned to appeal an order by the federal judge to the 5th U.S. Circuit if it called for any blanket releases.

The judge set a hearing for Tuesday to address a possible appeal.

There wasn’t anything in the previous story about people accused or convicted of violent crimes, hence my confusion. I assume there are still plenty of people in the Harris County jail for misdemeanor charges, so it’s not at all clear to me what the extent of the dispute is. Maybe later versions of the story will make that more clear.

UPDATE: There’s now a more detailed version of the Chron story and also a Trib story, but this post is too long already. I’ll be back with more tomorrow.

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One Comment

  1. Jason Hochman says:

    OK, so they will move the catastrophe from the jail to the streets by releasing a bunch of essentially homeless and unhoused people so that they can stay home and stay safe.