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Judge blocks Harris County inmate releases after 7 inmates were released Friday

HOUSTON – Earlier in the week, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo signed an emergency order to temporarily release inmates from the Harris County Jail.

About 1,500 inmates, who are facing non-violent charges with no past convictions for violent crimes, felony DWI or burglary of a habitation, initially fit the criteria for temporary release.

There are 7,637 inmates currently in the Harris County Jail.

Of those, three inmates have tested positive for coronavirus with 30 more inmates showing symptoms and awaiting test results. More than 800 inmates are currently being quarantined, according to Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez.

Not all of the 1,470 inmates that fit the criteria will be released. Harris County Sheriff’s Office said some on the list have been disqualified because of their previous criminal record.

Several entities, including the District Attorney’s Office, have to approve of an inmate’s release before it is allowed to move forward. Inmates on the lists are still going through a vetting process, officials said.

Harris County Sheriff’s officials said the first group of names reviewed involved 125 inmates considered medically vulnerable.

On Friday, seven inmates were released under Judge Hidalgo’s order. However, the process came to a grinding halt when Judge Herb Ritchie of the 337th Criminal District Court ordered Sheriff Ed Gonzalez and the Harris County Jail to ignore the order issued by Hidalgo.

Ritchie argues Hidalgo does not have the authority to order the release of inmates. Ritchie’s order only applies to those facing felony charges, not misdemeanors.

Read the order below:

Channel 2 legal analyst Brice Wice said this situation raises a very serious constitutional question.

“While I believe that Judge Ritchie is correct on the law based on the clear legal precedent upon which he relies,Judge Hidalgo may have an equally persuasive case based on this pandemic that threatens the health and well-being of both inmates and staff at the Harris County Jail. This case, which will likely be decided by the Court of Criminal Appeals, Texas’s highest criminal court, will test the limits of the separation of powers doctrine -- the very backbone of our democracy -- in a way like no other,” said Wice.

Even Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez was confused by the conflicting orders.

On Twitter, he wrote that he is a law enforcement official and not a lawyer.

“I’ll let the lawyers figure it out,” he wrote. “I respect the separation of powers. I’ve said before, I have no say in who is in our and out of our jail, my role is to manage the system.”