According to an order from Harris County Magistrate Courtney St. Julian, the county’s computer system “was not operational from March 24 at around 7 p.m. until March 26 at around 9 p.m.”
“There are now more than 280 defendants in custody that have not received a probable cause hearing or a…bail hearing,” reads St. Julian’s order, which authorized release of some suspects on personal recognizance bond and others with a $10,000 bond regardless of criminal history. None of those released were given any bond conditions.
Later in the week, the county released a list of 118 suspects released on charges that included driving while intoxicated, theft, racing, criminal mischief, resisting arrest, terroristic threat, and indecent exposure, but did not provide information on the criminal history of any of the defendants.
Under state law, defendants may not be held for processing for more than 24 hours for misdemeanors and 48 hours for felonies. St. Julian denied the district attorney’s request for an extension under the circumstances.
The county has since acknowledged that the computer problem has occurred on three prior occasions, but this is the first time the public has been made aware of the issue.
Following the crash, the district attorney’s office informed law enforcement agencies they would need to refile charges for the released defendants and that some would need to be re-arrested.
“The latest Harris County Universal Services’ computer-system failure has the full attention of the district attorney, police chief, and sheriff because it resulted in the temporary release of accused criminals,” said Dane Schiller, spokesman for the district attorney’s office, in a statement. “The safety of the public, security of our criminal justice system, and efficiency of our courts demand that the county give Universal Services the resources to fix this and ensure it never happens again.”
The cloud-based computer system known as JWEB at the center of the controversy was developed to replace the county’s former system beginning in 2015, and is used by the local law enforcement agencies, the district attorney’s office, the district clerk, pretrial services, the public defender’s office, and the courts. The system is hosted and maintained by the county’s new Universal Services Department.
In 2019, the county created the Universal Services Department to combine the former information technology center with fleet services and other departments. In 2020, in a 3 to 2 party-line vote, commissioners voted to fire the county’s chief information officer Bruce High and instead appointed Gen. Rick Noriega, a former Democratic state representative, to head up the new department.
According to Chris Daniel, the county’s former voter registrar and tax assessor collector and current Republican candidate for district clerk, the county used to conduct emergency exercises to practice for possible technology outages and he asserts there should have been a backup system in place.
“The local office of Court Administration could have implemented hard-paper dockets used for emergency purposes, like those during a hurricane or major flood event,” Daniel told The Texan. “The sheriff’s department could have had its own internal [information technology] staff have flags or could have assisted the magistrates in preparing a manual list of defendants.”
Daniel also expressed concern over the county’s giving third-party vendors such as PFM Consulting Group access to JWEB for studies and analysis of the criminal justice system
“Each agency relying on JWEB should reassess its own flagging and warning system and be given autonomy to operate in the event JWEB is unavailable,” said Daniel.
In 2020, county Judge Lina Hidalgo attempted to use her emergency powers under the COVID-19 pandemic to order mass release of inmates from the jail, but was thwarted by executive orders from Gov. Greg Abbott.
The county’s newly created office of elections administrator has also experienced both operational and technical challenges, and a lawsuit filed by the Harris County Republican Party remains pending.
Following the news of the glitch, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick lambasted the county for releasing the suspects and “dumping them on Houston streets, freeing them to commit new crimes and prey upon our citizens.”
“This is just the latest example of dysfunction and incompetence from Harris County Leadership,” said Patrick in a statement.
Citing controversies over the county’s elections division and an ongoing investigation into an $11 million vaccine outreach contract, Patrick asked, “Who will the Commissioners Court scapegoat this time?”
“Some magistrate will undoubtedly be sacrificed on the altar of political expediency for the mass release of nearly 300 criminals from the jail, but responsibility for this level of dysfunction rests squarely on the shoulders of the Harris County Commissioners Court.”
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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.