With 3 inmates, 20 Harris County Jail officials positive for coronavirus, battle over inmate release continues

HOUSTON – The Texas Police Chiefs Association, Houston Area Police Chiefs Association and Harris County Law Enforcement Executives held a news conference Tuesday slamming the low bonds being set for people being released from Harris County Jail during the coronavirus crisis.

Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo was joined by District Attorney Kim Ogg and police chiefs and constables from areas across the Houston area to talk about the challenge and issues created by Harris County magistrates and judges who were granting low bonds or not finding probable cause, allowing repeat offenders to be back on the street, Acevedo said.

According to Ogg, officers are in agreement that compassionate release is appropriate for people who pose no threat to the community, but it is not OK when criminals are a risk to the public.

Acevedo said officers in Harris County will make sure to shed light on how judges and magistrates who are issuing the low bonds are “coddling violent criminals.”

“We’re going to let (the public) know when somebody gets $10 bail for a violent crime. Or when somebody who is on probation or on bail goes back to the same judge for the same type of crime and there are no consequences. ” Acevedo said. “it’s ridiculous.”

Acevedo closed by saying there are victims who are being revictimized due to judges setting low bonds on violent offenders, and Harris County officers are not going to let that go unnoticed.

Battling it out in court

As law enforcement officials were voicing their concerns Tuesday afternoon, another hearing was held in federal court regarding the status of thousands of inmates in the Harris County jail. Sheriff Ed Gonzalez wants to reduce the jail’s population to prevent a COVID-19 outbreak.

So far, three inmates at the Harris County Jail have tested positive.

“An additional 52 inmates are in quarantine with symptoms indicative of the virus and are awaiting test results,” Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez announced Tuesday. “The number of inmates on observational quarantine without symptoms because they were possibly exposed to someone with the virus now stands at 1,132.”

Along with the inmates, 16 detention officers and staff members assigned to work at Harris County Jail tested positive for COVID-19 since April 1, Gonzalez announced. Four other jail officials had tested positive for the virus in March.

There appeared to be a solution to this issue last week when Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo issued an order to begin expediting the release of certain non-violent inmates. Shortly after that process began, state district court Judge Herb Ritchie issued another order arguing Hidalgo does not have the authority to issue this type of order for inmates facing felony charges.

After the dueling orders came out, Gonzalez asked a federal court judge to decide the issue. Judge Lee Rosenthal is presiding over an ongoing federal lawsuit over Harris County’s bail practices. During a hearing Tuesday on the matter, Rosenthal took no action and made a point to state she did not believe the process had reached a point yet where an order from a federal court is needed.

Rosenthal asked all parties involved in this process to submit information to her court as to how everyone was working to resolve these disputes.

Adding to this chorus, State Senator Paul Bettencourt and eight other Houston lawmakers filed a brief with the federal court, opposing the release of inmates facing felony charges.

"Together we represent approximately 2 million plus constituents of Harris County, the vast majority of whom are opposed to this inmate release,” Bettencourt wrote in a news release.

Read Bettencourt’s full statement below:

About the Authors:

Daniela Sternitzky-Di Napoli has been a digital news editor at KPRC 2 since 2018. She is a published poet and has background in creative writing and journalism. Daniela has covered events like Hurricane Harvey and the Astros World Series win. In her spare time, Daniela is an avid reader and loves to spend time with her two miniature dachshunds.

Award winning investigative journalist who joined KPRC 2 in July 2000. Husband and father of the Master of Disaster and Chaos Gremlin. “I don’t drink coffee to wake up, I wake up to drink coffee.”