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Harris County plans to further reduce jail population after juvenile offender contracted coronavirus

The effort to reduce the Harris County jail population gained new urgency Thursday after a juvenile offender tested positive for the coronavirus. Jails are a potential hot spot for the spread of the contiguous virus.

As a result, the Harris County Juvenile detention center is no longer accepting new prisoners. The fifth-floor detention center, where the inmate was housed, is on lockdown, and about 15 teen offenders are quarantined.

At the same time, the plan to reduce the adult inmate population is on hold due to a conflict between county and state officials.

Harris County Sheriff’s Office said 20 adult inmates were tested for the virus. Four tested negative, while sixteen are in quarantine.

Over the last week, the Harris County Sheriff’s Office managed to reduce the inmate population at three county jails by 8,500 to 8,000 inmates.

Joe McDonald, who was in jail for five months for burglary, was released Thursday, without having to post a bond.

“They actually reduced by charge, I think because of what’s going on,” he said.

But a broader plan to reduce the inmate population is being held up by conflict.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo was preparing an order to release non-violent inmates who are over 55 years of age or who have medical issues.

But that action is being held up by a directive issued Wednesday by State Attorney General Ken Paxton, asserting that county officials can’t override decisions made by state officeholders.

And since those prisoners are in jail at the direction of state judges, the order suggests the County Judge is powerless to release them.

While the county attorney is researching the law, Hidalgo is exploring other possible solutions such as moving inmates to other jails and working with judges to release eligible inmates, according to the Harris County Judge office.

“What we’re figuring out right now is what’s possible under the law,” Hidalgo said at a news conference Thursday. “Right now, we don’t have the answer to that. So right now, I have not signed any order.”