HealthcareIssuesLocal NewsStatewide NewsBREAKING: Federal Judge Allows State to Join Lawsuit on Release of Inmates in Harris County

State leaders are set to intervene in a case regarding the release of inmates in the Harris County jail system as the coronavirus crisis continues.
March 31, 2020
Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal has granted a motion to intervene filed by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton in a case regarding the release of thousands of inmates in the Harris County Jail system. 

In granting the motion, the judge is allowing Paxton, along with Governor Greg Abbott, the right to participate in further discovery, make arguments, and appeal further actions. 

Plaintiffs’ attorneys in Russell et al v. Harris County, Texas, originally filed the suit last January 2019 regarding the detention of felony suspects.  Last Friday, they filed an emergency motion asking the Judge to either order immediate hearings or grant immediate release of thousands of inmates due to coronavirus concerns. 

On Sunday, March 29, Paxton filed the motion to intervene on behalf of the State of Texas, Governor Greg Abbott, and the Texas Attorney General.

The state’s motion argues that the lawsuit constitutes an effort to “undermine entirely lawful bail practices with a view to setting loose potentially dangerous felony arrestees,” and would interfere with the state’s authority to enforce the law and act on behalf of public safety. 

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Also, since the named defendants, Harris County and Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, are in favor of the plaintiffs’ stance, Paxton’s motion indicates that no one is representing an opposing view that includes concern for victims and public safety. The state says the plaintiffs and defendants are effectively colluding to reach a common goal.

In addition, the state presented data indicating that elimination of bail bond policies had led to increased criminal activity in Chicago, Illinois and that Dallas County’s reforms may have contributed to the double-homicide committed at Texas A&M Commerce earlier this year.

Although plaintiffs did not oppose the intervention, they disputed the factual claims and legal principles cited in the motion to intervene.

In her order granting the motion, Judge Rosenthal cited a Fifth Circuit ruling establishing a four-part criterion for intervention. 

“The court finds that the requirements…are met. The intervenors timely moved for intervention and have important interests potentially involved in this action that will not be adequately represented by the existing parties,” the judge wrote.

Now that Judge Rosenthal has accepted the motion to intervene, Governor Abbott and Attorney General Paxton are considered equal to the original parties in Russell v Harris County and will have the right to participate in further discovery, make arguments, and appeal further actions. 

Governor Abbott on Sunday also issued an executive order that precludes county judges, mayors, or emergency management directors from releasing individuals from jails or prisons, and prevents the broad-scale release of those accused or convicted of a crime involving physical violence or the threat of physical violence. 

As of March 30, there were 7,896 inmates in the Harris County Jail system. The majority of pretrial detainees were held on felony charges, with the top three categories being Aggravated Robbery with a Deadly Weapon (29 percent), Aggravated Assault with a Deadly Weapon (22 percent), and Aggravated Assault of a Family-Member (22 percent).


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Holly Hansen

Holly Hansen is a regional reporter for The Texan 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.