Harris County moves forward with plan to release certain inmates from jail

HOUSTON – Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo issued an order for the sheriff to begin releasing certain non-violent inmates from the county jail as soon as possible. The effort is designed to reduce the jail population to prevent an outbreak of the coronavirus.

One inmate has tested positive for the virus and another 30 inmates are showing symptoms. Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said it is very difficult to engage in social distancing with a jail population of 7,791 inmates, 6,303 of whom are awaiting trial. Data from the Sheriff’s Office shows 213 of these inmates are facing misdemeanors.

While Hidalgo has mentioned as many as 1,000 inmates could be released, the total number is not yet known since each release will have to be vetted and approved by several stakeholders.

“We were on a conference call with several of the judge’s staff members for close to an hour the same day she came out with the edict,” said Houston Crime Stoppers’ Andy Kahan.

Kahan said the biggest point for victim advocates was making sure no violent offenders are released. The judge’s order defines non-violent as, “The use or threatened use of physical force or unwanted sexual touching against another person.”

Still, Kahan said this definition needed to go further.

“It’s the least you can do in government is to look out for victim’s rights, their well-being, their due process,” he said.

Under the judge’s order an inmate cannot be considered for release if they are currently charged or previously convicted of a violent crime, currently subject to a protective order, charged with their third or higher DWI or charged with burglary of a habitation. Those last three points is what Kahan said they pushed for.