Harris County orders release of some nonviolent defendants from jail after concerns of viral outbreak

HOUSTON – To reduce the threat of a coronavirus outbreak in Harris County Jail, a judge has ordered some nonviolent felony defendants to be released on personal recognizance bond to relieve overcrowding.

On Saturday, Harris County Administrative Judge Herb Ritchie issued a general order bond, requiring the immediate release of any defendants booked into the jail on any of the 18 nonviolent state jail felonies who are not already on probation or facing other charges.

The state jail felonies listed in the order are:

- Bribery

- Credit or Debit Card Abuse

- Criminal Mischief

- Electronic Access Interference

- Delivery of Marijuana

- False Statement to Obtain Property or Credit

- Forgery

- Fraudulent Transfer of a Motor Vehicle

- Fraudulent Use or Possession of Identifying Information

- Graffiti

- Health Care Fraud

- Insurance Fraudulent

- Manufacture or Delivery of Substance in Penalty Group 1.481.112(b)

- Possession of Substance in Penalty Group 1.481.115(b)

- Manufacture, Possession, or Delivery of Unlawful Telecommunications Device

- Possession of Marijuana

- Theft

- Theft of Service

The order is aimed at reducing jail crowding by releasing low risk offenders like Roger Robinson. He said he was arrested last Thursday for an alleged parole violation and release early Monday morning.

“They have quiet a few guys still locked up. They’re still under panic behind the virus going on. But they are letting people out but it’s on a slow basis," Robinson said.

In issuing the order, Harris County is following the lead of other counties and municipalities from California to Maine that are taking aggressive steps to reduce jail populations.

“That is very much an issue that we continue to work on, to continue to find what solutions there may be,” said Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo. “To the extent we reduce the number of people all in one place, we’re able to spread folks about to ensure if a group of folks get sick ,that there’s room to quarantine.”

But the Houston Police Union is pushing back.

President Joe Gamaldi contending that while the defendants may be nonviolent, some are career criminals who shouldn’t be released without posting a cash bond.

“Give them a bond amount that is going to ensure their appearance in court while also balancing the safety of the community,” Gamaldi said. “But if you just let them out and all they have to do is sign their name. They ain’t coming back to court. And instead they’re going to be out stealing from the hardworking folks.”

Gamaldi said a process that should be done with a scalpel is instead being done with a sledge hammer.