IssuesLocal NewsAs Jail Release Orders for “Non-Violent” Felon Suspects Loom, Federal Judge Defers to Harris County for Now

Harris County Judge Hidalgo plans to release 1,000 prisoners over coronavirus concerns after a federal judge left the decision to county officials.
April 1, 2020
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On Tuesday afternoon, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo (D) announced she would sign new emergency orders providing for the release of approximately 1,000 detainees in the county’s jail system.

Calling the jail “a ticking time bomb,” Hidalgo said there was one confirmed case of coronavirus and two dozen others with symptoms among the inmates.

Although Governor Greg Abbott has issued executive orders prohibiting the release of inmates accused of crimes involving violence or threat of physical violence, Hidalgo said her orders would not conflict with those of the governor.

Shortly after Hidalgo’s press conference, U.S. District Court Judge Lee H. Rosenthal held a telephonic hearing to consider an emergency filing in Russell v Harris County, a lawsuit regarding bail requirements for accused felons, that demanded either immediate hearings or immediate release of all pretrial detainees in the jail.

During the hearing, Judge Rosenthal questioned counsel for both the county judge and Sheriff Ed Gonzalez about the specifics of Hidalgo’s new orders. Kathryn Kase, legal counsel for Judge Hidalgo, told the judge that the order was not actually complete at that time.

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Kase did assure Judge Rosenthal that the order would only apply to pretrial detainees charged with nonviolent felonies and who did not have previous convictions for violent felony offenses. 

She also stated that release orders would target those not subject to any other basis of detention, not subject to protective orders, not held on one or more charges of DWI, and not charged with burglary of a habitation. 

In response to a question from Judge Rosenthal as to whether suspects who had been charged with repeated failures to appear or repeated financial fraud, Kase said as far as she knew those exceptions had not been made.

Judge Rosenthal also closely questioned Murray Fogler, counsel for Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, on how many total inmates might be eligible for release and how many might be released each day.

Fogler said that the Sheriff’s office would compile a list of 1,000 to 1,200 candidates for release that would then be submitted to the district attorney’s office and other entities to check for prior convictions and other issues. But he also clarified that according to Judge Hidalgo’s emergency orders, the final decision to authorize release would rest with Sheriff Gonzalez, not the district attorney.

Due to the process for checking backgrounds for prior convictions or other holds, and the need to maintain social distancing during that process, Fogler estimated the county would be able to release approximately 250 inmates per day.

Plaintiffs’ attorney Elizabeth Rossi protested that Hidalgo’s orders would not release enough inmates and that it would take too long to check on the criminal histories for prior convictions of violent felonies. 

“If any order is entered that requires a review of people’s criminal history, and if executive orders are unnecessarily constraining and flagrantly unconstitutional, we are going to be filing a motion to restrain it,” said Rossi.

Judge Rosenthal responded that if she issued court orders she would impose the same limitations on those with violent offenses in their criminal history.

On further questioning from Judge Rosenthal, Rossi also admitted that the plaintiffs named in the case were no longer inmates of the Harris County jail system.

Due to Judge Hidalgo’s pending release orders, Judge Rosenthal declined to grant the plaintiffs’ emergency motion. Saying she would wait to see how the county progressed with release efforts during the week, Rosenthal adjourned without ordering any new action and scheduled the next hearing for Friday morning. 

Adam Biggs, representing Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, informed Judge Rosenthal that out of an abundance of caution, he would be filing a brief in opposition to the plaintiffs’ request for broad-scale release of felony suspects.

Not originally parties to Russell v Harris County, on Monday Judge Rosenthal granted a motion to intervene that gave the State of Texas, Governor Greg Abbott, and the Attorney General the right to participate in further discovery, make arguments, and appeal future actions.

Although still not a party to Russell v Harris County, Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo has filed a statement in opposition to broad-scale action, stating that low-level non-violent offenders had already been released from the jail and those remaining in custody were primarily habitual offenders.

Tuesday evening Acevedo also released a statement saying that although his department is the largest user of the Harris County Jail, he had not been included in discussion of potential orders from Judge Hidalgo nor given any specifics of her pending orders.

The police chief noted that while many businesses had been closed for the past two weeks, his department had seen an 18.9 percent increase in burglary of businesses.

According to statistics from the Harris County Jail, 4,499 inmates had been arrested by the Houston Police Department, and 1,341 by the Harris County Sheriff.

Harris County criminal court judges have already implemented new General Order Bond Guidelines providing for expedited release of individuals charged with certain felony crimes as long as suspects do not have a pending felony or open warrant. 

Some Harris County judges are also authorizing release of suspects charged with violent crimes on personal recognizance bonds.

Judge Hidalgo also extended the county’s Stay Home Work Safe orders Tuesday. Orders will now apply through April 30, and violators could face fines up to $1,000 or 180 days in jail.

Update: Find a copy of  Judge Hidalgo’s orders below:

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Holly Hansen

Holly Hansen

Holly Hansen is a freelance writer living in Cypress, Texas. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.