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Houston federal judge won’t weigh in on fight against Abbott’s no-cost jail release ban

Prison bars background
Prison bars background (WJXT)

A federal judge has declined to take any action against Harris County and Gov. Greg Abbott’s jail release decisions. On Tuesday evening, U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal ruled that she would not issue a temporary order against Harris County officials or the governor. Inmates’ attorneys in an ongoing bail lawsuit have argued that the governor’s order banning no-cost release of some inmates during the pandemic unconstitutionally discriminates against poor defendants and puts too much gubernatorial power over the judicial branch.

“This is neither an easy nor good solution. It is simply the best one this court can devise from the law and the facts that constrain its authority,” Rosenthal wrote. “The good news, however, is that it reflects the commendable, though still halting, progress made by the parties and interested nonparties in safely reducing the Harris County Jail population during this dangerous time.”

At the urging of health officials, local authorities in Texas have moved to reduce their jail populations as the new coronavirus spreads in lockups. The fear of mass release of violent inmates led to Abbott’s order, which has been challenged in multiple legal arenas. Rosenthal said state litigation on the order — where Abbott is named a defendant — may make it unnecessary for her to rule on whether his order is unconstitutional.

She said movement by officials to at least partially reduce the jail population in Harris County keep her from stepping in for now. Harris County’s jail population shrunk significantly in March by more than 1,000 inmates, according to jail reports. In April, it has continued to decrease, but by small amounts — moving from 7,637 inmates on April 2 to 7,466 Tuesday. About 50 inmates at the jail have tested positive for the virus, with many more symptomatic and awaiting results. — Jolie McCullough, Texas Tribune