This afternoon a court order has halted Harris County plans to release felony suspects from the county’s jail system due to coronavirus concerns.
Administrative Judge Herb Ritchie for Harris County Criminal Courts signed an order directing the sheriff, the Pre-trial Services Agency, and Community Supervisions and Corrections Department to “ignore and wholly disregard” County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s emergency orders for release of suspects due to coronavirus concerns.
Ritchie’s order states that the 22 felony district courts have exclusive jurisdiction and therefore the county judge has no legal authority over these cases.
He also states that the sheriff may only release felony inmates under orders of release from a State District Judge, Court of Appeals, Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, or by a federal court with jurisdiction in Harris County.
Judge Ritchie’s order came only hours after a federal court hearing in which a representative for Sheriff Ed Gonzalez told Chief U.S. District Court Judge Lee H. Rosenthal approximately 158 inmates were in the process of release under Hidalgo’s orders.
Hidalgo had announced her plans to order the release of “non-violent” inmates at a Tuesday press conference but did not finalize the orders until 3 p.m. Wednesday.
The federal court hearing regarded Russell v Harris County, a pending lawsuit regarding the legality of bail requirements for felony suspects. The plaintiffs’ attorneys last week filed a motion last Friday calling for immediate hearings or immediate releases due to coronavirus concerns, but the judge declined to act at a hearing earlier this week.
On Wednesday, plaintiffs filed a new motion asking Judge Rosenthal to rule unconstitutional Governor Abbott’s recent executive order restricting the broad-scale release of violent suspects.
Hidalgo’s order had allowed for Sheriff Ed Gonzalez to submit lists of detainees to “criminal justice stakeholders,” including the district attorney’s office, to be vetted for prior convictions for crimes involving violence or the threat of violence. Hidalgo’s order specified that 32 hours after the lists are submitted, the detainees will be released unless one of the stakeholders has objections.
According to Mark Fogler, at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday the sheriff’s office had submitted 1,470 names of inmates for potential release, broken down into two groups.
The first group included 125 “medically vulnerable” individuals to be given priority consideration. Of the 125, only 14 were approved by stakeholders without objection. The Harris County district attorney’s office flagged the remaining 111 for prior convictions of violent crime or unwanted sexual conduct.
Fogler said the Harris County public defender’s office had contested 48 of those flagged by the district attorney, arguing that the prior convictions were not disqualifying.
JoAnne Musick, representing the district attorney, told Judge Rosenthal that they had not received the list of 48 names from Public Defender Alex Bunin. Bunin responded that the list had been sent out at 3:30 a.m. but he would resend immediately.
The sheriff’s second list of 1,345 inmates has also been submitted, but at the time of the hearing, only 856 of those cases had been reviewed by the district attorney. Of those, the D.A. has approved 110 as having no objectionable prior convictions.
Judge Rosenthal questioned Adam Biggs of the Texas Attorney General’s office on whether the governor’s order still allowed judges to authorize release for health or safety reasons even after holding individualized hearings. Biggs could not provide an answer but said he would obtain clarification by 5 p.m. Friday.
A point of contention between parties regarded whether arrestees were receiving appropriate individualized hearings within an acceptable period.
According to the district attorney’s office, suspects receive a hearing with a magistrate within 24 hours and have access to a hearing with a judge by the next business day.
Plaintiffs’ attorney Alec Karakatsanis however, asserted that even before the coronavirus pandemic, suspects were waiting 2-4 weeks for a hearing before a judge, and now may have to wait 6-8 weeks.
But 209th District Criminal Court Judge Brian Warren testified that he and other judges were holding hearings via telephone or Zoom and that he had held a bond hearing earlier that morning.
Karakatsanis did notify the judge that contrary to a statement his team made earlier in the week, at least one of the named plaintiffs in the case was still an inmate in the Harris County jail pending charges of Aggravated Assault with a deadly weapon and “drug issues.” He did not know if his client had any prior violent felony convictions.
Judge Rosenthal charged parties with gathering more answers to her questions regarding the governor’s executive orders, the process and timeline for giving suspects bond review hearings, and the criminal background of the plaintiff still held in the county jail.
Without acting on motions for immediate release or in regard to the governor’s orders, Rosenthal ordered the court adjourned until Monday morning at 9 a.m.
It was then Friday afternoon at 2:21 p.m. that Sheriff Gonzalez announced on social media that his office was halting any further inmate releases due to the new court order.
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Holly Hansen is a freelance writer living in Harris County. 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.