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Harris County sheriff asks federal court judge to intervene if no resolution reached in inmate-release dispute

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HOUSTON – Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez is asking a federal court judge to step in if a compromise can’t be reached regarding the release of about 1,000 non-violent inmates from the Harris County Jail. Gonzalez has repeatedly said he wants to reduce the jail’s population to prevent a massive outbreak of COVID-19 in the jail.

So far, Gonzalez said three inmates have tested positive for COVID-19, three dozen more are showing symptoms and awaiting test results and 800 are quarantined and are being monitored.

At present, there are 7,599 inmates in the jail and Gonzalez said that level makes it very difficult to maintain social distancing for both inmates and employees.

On Friday, the Sheriff began releasing inmates under Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s order. Hidalgo’s order was aimed at reducing the jail’s population by temporarily releasing inmates who were charged with non-violent crimes, had no violent criminal history or had been charged with a third or higher DWI or burglary of a habitation.

According to the county’s Justice Administration Department, 12 inmates were released under Hidalgo’s order, when state court judge Herb Ritchie issued a counter-order disregard Hidalgo’s directive. Ritchie argued Hidalgo did not have the authority to order the release of inmates facing felony charges.

According to data from the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, of the 7,599 inmates currently in jail, 3.2% face misdemeanor charges.

On Monday Gonzalez filed a statement in a federal civil court lawsuit involving Harris County’s bail practices. Gonzalez wrote that if a solution to this conflict cannot be worked out at the local level, “the Sheriff urges the court to order, as an independent exercise of its constitutional powers, the release of any non-violent detainees who have no prior conviction of a serious violent crime.”

Read Gonzalez’s full statement below:

Another hearing in the civil case is scheduled for Tuesday morning. As of our deadline, county officials have not yet said whether there will be an appeal of Judge Ritchie’s order.