Harris County judge says she will sign order to release about 1K inmates from county jail amid coronavirus crisis

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo announced Tuesday afternoon that along with extending the “stay home, work safe” order through April 30, she will also be signing an order to release about 1,000 non-violent offenders from the Harris County Jail.

HOUSTON – Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo announced Tuesday afternoon that along with extending the “stay home, work safe” order through April 30, she will also be signing an order to release about 1,000 non-violent offenders from the Harris County Jail.

Hidalgo said that at present, there are about 8,000 inmates in the Harris County Jail leaving little opportunity for social distancing within the jail.

As of Tuesday, Hidalgo said there was one inmate who had tested positive, two dozen inmates with symptoms and about 1,100 asymptomatic inmates who were under observation. She described the jail as “a ticking time bomb” that had the potential to be the “epicenter of a catastrophe.”

Besides the 8,000 inmates in the jail, there are about 3,000 contract workers and jail staff who go in and out of the jail each day, Hidalgo said. Those people then pose a threat of exposure to their families and the community. Hidalgo said there were not enough hospital beds available in the area to treat all the people with COVID-19 if there were an outbreak within the jail.

After consulting with Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, various police chiefs and victims rights advocates, Hidalgo said she will sign the order “with certain exceptions” that while Harris County is under a disaster declaration, that certain non-violent offenders will be released from the jail. She said they will go through an extensive process to determine if someone should be released or not.

Hidalgo’s legal counsel, Kathyrn Kase, gave a deeper explanation of the proposed order during a federal court hearing Tuesday afternoon, that took place at the same time as Hidalgo’s press conference. The hearing involved a lawsuit seeking the release of 4,000 Harris County jail inmates who cannot afford their court-ordered bail. The lawsuit was filed last year, but attorneys for the inmates asked Judge Lee Rosenthal to take immediate action because of the possibility of a COVID-19 outbreak.

During the hearing, the judge asked for an explanation of Hidalgo’s order. Kase explained the order directs the Harris County Sheriff to compile a list of inmates who are in jail for non-violent offenses and who have no history of violence. Kase said the order would not apply to those inmates who a protective order in place, those charged with their third or higher DWI or charged with burglary of a habitation.

Both Kase and the Judge noted these matters only involve those inmates in the jail who have not yet gone to trial, not inmates currently serving a sentence. Kase also said any inmate being considered for release would have to be checked for symptoms of COVID-19 and cleared by a medical professional.

What Houston-area law enforcement officials say

Officials with the Sheriff’s Office said while the list has not yet been compiled, it would likely involve between 1,000 and 1,200 inmates. Kase also pointed out the list of names would then have to be reviewed by several “stakeholders,” including the District Attorney’s Office. Kase made sure to point out the order would not violate Governor Greg Abbott’s executive order that prevents the release of violent inmates.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez told KPRC 2 he does not support the mass release of inmates but feels the jail population does need to be decreased, given the current pandemic. Gonzalez said one inmate tested positive and 30 others are showing symptoms, but their test results have not yet come back.

Gonzalez said the nature of jail makes it very difficult to exercise social distancing given the current population of just under 8,000 inmates. Gonzalez said if there is an outbreak in the jail, he worries inmates will become critical and have to be transferred to hospitals. He said he also worries about his department employees who could possibly bring the virus home to their families.

Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo added his voice to the federal lawsuit by filing a declaration that reads in part, “Based on my training, experience, and understanding of the current circumstances on the ground, I believe that such a mass release of felons would not only fail to serve the public interests, but furthermore make our streets less safe.”

Acevedo’s concern are specifically directed toward the plaintiffs’ attorneys who are seeking the release of 4,000 inmates.

Read Acevedo’s filing below:

After Hidalgo’s press conference, the Houston Police Department also tweeted a statement from Acevedo about her order.

What the governor says

Over the weekend, Gov. Greg Abbott signed an executive order banning inmates accused or previously convicted of violent crimes from being released from jails without paying bail. Those with the same criminal history or the same charges can still walk free if they have access to cash — a distinction that bail reform attorneys argue makes the order unconstitutional.

Abbott said at a news conference Sunday that “releasing dangerous criminals makes the state even less safe ... and slows our ability to respond to the disaster caused by COVID-19.”

KPRC 2 will post the order in this story as soon as it becomes available from Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s Office.