After local officials in Harris County and other jurisdictions announced plans last week to release jail inmates due to coronavirus concerns, Governor Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton have taken swift action to stop the broad-scale release of inmates.
On Sunday Governor Abbott issued Executive Order GA-13 suspending portions of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure and precluding the power of any county judge, mayor, or emergency management director from releasing individuals held in jails or prisons.
Abbott’s order effectively prevents the broad-scale release of those accused or convicted of a crime “that involves physical violence or the threat of physical violence,” on no-cost bonds. Criminal court judges may still act to release inmates on an individualized basis for health or medical reasons, and then only if proper notice is given to the district attorney with opportunity for a hearing.
The original case, Dwight Russell v. Harris County has been pending in federal court since January 2019, but last Friday plaintiffs’ attorneys filed an emergency motion in light of coronavirus concerns that demands the judge either grant immediate bail hearings or order the immediate release of thousands of pretrial detainees in the Harris County jail system.
The 16-page motion to intervene filed on behalf of The State of Texas, the Governor, and the Attorney General, says the suit “seeks to further undermine entirely lawful bail practices with a view to setting loose potentially dangerous felony arrestees.”
The state cites the need to protect public health and safety and strongly condemns the lawsuit for ignoring the plight of victims and its responsibility to protect public safety.
Referencing a recent study from the University of Utah, the motion notes that unsecured pretrial release of arrestees in Chicago has already led to an increase in violent crime there, and also refers to a report from The Texan on how Dallas County’s release policies contributed to a double homicide at Texas A&M Commerce.
Additional potential threats to public safety are named, including concern that under coronavirus shelter-in-place orders, victims of domestic violence could be subject to further violence at the hands of released accused attackers.
The motion also argues that in Russell v. Harris County the plaintiff and defendants are on the same side of the issue, effectively constituting collusion.
“The plaintiffs ask this Court to order the release of thousands of persons arrested on felony charges-including murder, rape, burglary, and domestic violence. And the defendants, in an effort to signal their support for bail reform policies, do not oppose the plaintiffs’ request.”
Last year, in a 3-2 party-line vote, Harris County Commissioners voted to accept a controversial bail reform settlement agreement, and Commissioners Rodney Ellis (D-Pct.1) and Adrian Garcia (D-Pct. 2) along with County Judge Lina Hidalgo (D) have been vocal supporters of further expanding bail reform.
While Sheriff Ed Gonzalez and Harris County are named defendants, District Attorney Kim Ogg (D), who provided testimony in opposition to some aspects of the county’s bail reform settlement last year, was notably omitted from the suit. Ogg has now been added as an “interested non-party.”
The state’s motion lambasts defendants in Russell v. Harris County, accusing the defendants of taking a position that is “adverse” and “diametrically opposed” to the public interest.
“Rather than seeking to prevent felony arrestees from being released en masse, protect the public from further exposure to the coronavirus, maintain orderly operation of the state’s criminal justice system, and help preserve already scarce police resources, defendants have chosen to do the opposite.”
Although under reform provisions most misdemeanor suspects are released without having to post bond, those accused of felonies, especially in violent crime, may still be detained and subject to bail policies designed to compel cooperation in the criminal justice system.
Some criminal court judges, such as Harris County’s DaSean Jones, have already minimized bonds for accused felons and even authorized the release of murder suspects.
On Friday, Judge Rosenthal had asked lawyers to craft a plan for releasing the first 1,000 inmates detained on bonds of $10,000 or less and had planned to consider releasing thousands more this week.
If the judge grants the state’s motion to intervene, the state, governor, and attorney general would be considered legal parties to the lawsuit, and thus able to appeal actions.
As of March 28, there were 7,883 individuals in the county’s jail system. The vast majority of inmates were under pretrial detention for felony offenses, with the top three charges 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).
22 percent of inmates self-reported as homeless and 31 percent are on psychotropic medication.
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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.