In late March, Plaintiffs’ attorneys for Russell v Harris County, a lawsuit regarding the bond process for felony suspects, had asked Chief U.S. District Court Judge Lee H. Rosenthal to order the release of thousands of pretrial detainees due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Judge Rosenthal officially denied the plaintiffs’ request for emergency release and also declined a motion asking her to rule unconstitutional Governor Abbott’s Executive Order GA-13 that restricts the release of violent suspects or those with previous violent convictions.
As the largest jail in the state, the Harris County jail system houses as many as 8,000 prisoners a day in close conditions that make quarantine difficult. Several local leaders, including Sheriff Ed Gonzalez and County Judge Lina Hidalgo have been advocating for what has been termed “compassionate release.”
Although named defendants in the lawsuit, neither the county nor the sheriff opposed the plaintiffs’ requests. Consequently, the governor and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sought to intervene and have been presenting arguments against the plaintiffs’ requests.
In her official opinion, Judge Rosenthal acknowledged the legitimate concerns about containing the spread of coronavirus, but cited the efforts of the county’s district attorney and criminal court judges to provide prompt bail hearings to determine which pretrial detainees might be safely released into the community.
The judge also noted the jurisdictional and separation of powers issues in the case.
“A federal district court asked to wade into policy and political disagreements among State and County elected officials is in risky territory. There is no good, clearly safe, constitutionally, and jurisdictionally right solution to many of the short-term problems and disagreements the pandemic has made so acute,” she wrote.
The federal court decision came just two days after the Supreme Court of Texas kept in place the governor’s executive order. That action had been in relation to a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and 16 Harris County Judges in a Travis County state district court in another effort to block the governor’s restrictions on inmate releases.
A third lawsuit, Sanchez v Dallas County Sheriff, has also been filed in a federal court district in Dallas. Plaintiffs’ attorneys, joined by the ACLU of Texas, are asking yet another federal judge, U.S. District Court Judge Ada Brown, to block the governor’s executive order GA-13.
Attorney General Ken Paxton has also requested intervenor status in the Dallas County case, and the next hearing is set for April 21, 2020.
Although a Harris County Administrative Judge halted Hidalgo’s emergency orders for releasing inmates, the county has continued to process a list of inmates submitted by sheriff Gonzalez and has continued to release suspects deemed non-violent.
As of Tuesday, there were 7,466 inmates in the Harris County Jail, with the majority held on aggravated felony charges. Nearly 50 inmates have tested positive for coronavirus.
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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.