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Inmate Releases Due to COVID-19 Concerns Opposed by Harris County District Attorney, Lawmakers

Although last year a federal court judge declined to order the immediate release of Harris County jail inmates due to COVID-19 pandemic fears, the court is now considering the release of more than 1,500 inmates at the request of Sheriff Ed Gonzalez (D).

Gonzalez filed the request for an emergency hearing in relation to Russell v Harris County, a lawsuit regarding bail bonds for felony suspects. Noting that since the beginning of the pandemic six inmates and two staff members have died from COVID-19, Gonzalez said the jail population now surpasses 9,000 inmates and said he is unable to effectively quarantine.

Chief U.S. District Court Judge Lee H. Rosenthal ordered judges and District Attorney Kim Ogg (D) to consider a list of pre-trial inmates compiled by the Harris County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO) that would include 364 detainees with nonviolent charges and 1,151 others with bonds below $10,000 who could be approved for release. 

According to the district attorney’s office, however, the list submitted by the sheriff included 1,543 inmates, including defendants with holds. The HCSO stated, “Our hope is that we can get the [Harris County] case cleared so that the defendant can be released to take care of the hold.”

Ogg asserts that most holds, especially those filed for federal immigration proceedings or out-of-state extradition, cannot be resolved by releasing these inmates prior to processing for current charges within the county.

According to an advisory the district attorney filed with the court, 1,148 of the defendants on Gonzalez’s list have an external hold or their pending case is violent. Furthermore, each of the remaining 395 defendants collectively has 823 pending cases, many of which have a bond greater than $10,000, and the district attorney says many of these multiple arrestees were on bond when arrested for new offenses. 

In one example provided by Ogg’s office, a defendant being held on a $5,000 bond, also had five other pending charges with additional bonds, bringing the total to $30,000.

On Friday, nine state legislators from the Houston area also filed an amicus brief with the court urging the judge to deny the sheriff’s request for release. 

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) asked why Gonzalez did not seek relief from the state legislature, now in session, and added, “I objected to the release of 4,000 inmates last year as a potential crime bomb. With the level of public safety concerns in Harris County, we don’t need any portion of a crime bomb today.”

In addition to Bettencourt, Reps. Sam Harless (R-Spring), Dan Huberty (R-Humble), Briscoe Cain (R-Deer Park), Dennis Paul (R-Houston), Tom Oliverson (R-Cypress) Jim Murphy (R-Houston), Lacey Hull (R-Houston), and Valoree Swanson (R-Spring) all signed the brief and noted that collectively they represent 1.75 million people, over one-third of the county’s population.

The group notes the region has experienced a sharp increase in homicides, and that Governor Greg Abbott has directed the Texas Department of Public Safety to address an “alarming rise in road rage-related shootings in the city of Houston.” They also point to research by Houston Crime Stoppers’ Andy Kahan indicating that at least 90 people have been murdered in the county by suspects out on multiple bonds over the past two years.

“I feel it is important to keep public safety paramount in this continuing COVID-19 situation,” said Paul.

Swanson added, “This continued effort by liberal politicians to release criminals en masse is dangerous and unconscionable. Our law enforcement offices are overwhelmed as it is, and this policy threatens the safety of my constituents.” 

Following the publication of the amicus, Gonzalez responded on social media saying, “Harris County’s criminal court system continues to work at an unsustainably slow pace that is denying justice to victims, defendants, and the taxpayers footing the cost of an overpopulated jail. We need immediate action from everyone involved in our judicial system to get our courtrooms at full speed.”

Saying he is not advocating for the release of violent defendants, Gonzalez added, “By the way, the vast majority of defendants are pre-trial. Do you think they’re aware that 65 percent of our population today is black and brown individuals?” 

Although the federal lawsuit, pending since January 2019, named only Harris County and the sheriff as defendants, last year the state and Attorney General Ken Paxton sought and received intervenor status in the case and helped persuade the judge to deny an emergency request for release of nearly 4,000 inmates.

In December 2019, Paxton then filed a motion to withdraw from intervenor status which was then granted. Without a defendant arguing in opposition to the plaintiff’s case, many observers believed the Russell case would result in a sweeping consent decree like that granted in the ODonnell case governing misdemeanor bail in Harris County. Lack of an active defendant also removes the possibility of appeal to a higher court following any rulings.

Today, however, Paxton’s office filed a new motion to intervene on behalf of the State of Texas, and Rosenthal granted the request.  

Under terms imposed by the ODonnell consent decree, few misdemeanor defendants are detained. As of January 21, of the 9,102 inmates, 8,773 are being held on felony charges or are state jail felons

A status conference on the sheriff’s request before the federal court is scheduled for Tuesday, January 26, 2021.

A copy of the amicus brief filed by legislators can be found below. 

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