This week, Harris County Commissioners approved more than $5 million in immediate new spending on pretrial services for suspects, and Judge Lina Hidalgo called for the release of more inmates in the county’s jail system due to coronavirus concerns.
Hidalgo announced her intention to release inmates at a Thursday press conference. Later that day the Houston Chronicle reported that the county’s judge had been working on an executive order allowing for “broad-scale” release of “medically vulnerable nonviolent inmates,” but had been forced to put plans on hold while her legal team analyzed a ruling from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.
Paxton’s ruling and letter to state officials does not specifically mention inmate release plans, but warns that “political subdivisions may not restrict the ability of any State agency, State agent or State contractor to provide governmental services.”
The reiteration of the state government as the ultimate authority could thwart county ambitions to skirt state law governing incarcerations.
But today defense attorneys have requested intervention from Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal. The emergency filing requests the Judge either grant immediate bail hearings for pretrial detainees or mandate release for thousands of Harris County jail inmates.
Sheriff Ed Gonzalez has also called for the release of incarcerated persons who he says may be vulnerable, although he says at this time “our jail is not in crisis.” Last Friday county district court judges also released new General Order Bond guidelines providing for expedited release of those charged with certain felony crimes.
Director of Victim Services and Victim Advocacy for Crime Stoppers Andy Kahan has expressed concern that county officials have not considered the needs of crime victims in plans to release inmates.
“Our focus remains on public safety, justice, and the safety of crime victims,” Kahan told The Texan. “These release plans have a seeming lack of input from victims and victims’ advocacy groups.”
While county officials insist plans are only to release “non-violent” offenders, Kahan says he is seeing an alarming number of violent felony suspects released on “personal recognizance” (PR) bonds just in the last week.
PR bonds are usually reserved for suspects a judge has deemed not a threat to the community nor a flight risk.
Kahan has documented numerous examples of violent suspects released in Harris County recently, including the case of Adam Campuzano.
Last week Judge Kelli Johnson of the 178th District Court granted Campuzano a PR bond for Felon in Possession of a Weapon and Evading Arrest although he was already on a PR bond, had 3 previous felony convictions, and 5 previous misdemeanor convictions including 2 for DWI.
“Whether it’s about COVID19 or not, how do you justify releasing violent habitual criminals?” asked Kahan.
Kahan warned that while his organization has no issue with terms of bail reform for most misdemeanor suspects, even so-called “non-violent” felony offenders can wreak havoc in the community.
“Habitual criminals understand risk versus reward, and we are creating a situation where there’s very little risk and many rewards for them.”
In addition to inmate release plans, earlier this week, commissioners also approved spending $5.1 million to immediately begin implementing expanded “pretrial services” as the county moves to eliminate much of the secured bond system.
Citing an “urgency…based on public safety concerns,” Director of Pretrial Services Kevin Banks requested immediate approval of $5.1 million to cover costs to hire at least 100 new employees and provide additional drug testing, alcohol, GPS, and other electronic monitoring supplies, as well as office equipment and space for housing pretrial services staff.
Approved over objections from Commissioners Steve Radack and Jack Cagle, the $5.1 million tax-payer funded expenditure constitutes a prorated total for 2020, with future estimated annual costs of $5.7 million.
In his request, Banks also provided statistics on the 4,576 suspects in the jail system as of February 13, 2020. His report indicated there were more than 600 aggravated charges, with 45 for Aggravated Sexual Assault of a Child. In addition, there were 33 Capital Murder charges and nearly 1,900 DWI charges.
Banks’ reported that felony charges accounted for 72 percent of the total, with 32 percent of the total being for “a capital, a first-degree, or a second-degree felony charge.”
Last week, Judge DaSean Jones authorized the release of murder suspect David Cruz on personal bond, although Cruz had a previous conviction and repeated arrests for DWI. Cruz’ attorney had argued for release citing concerns over the spread of coronavirus within the jail.
The new pretrial services are part of the controversial bail bond reform settlement approved by a U.S. federal court judge last year.
In a 3-2 party-line vote, county commissioners last July also approved spending $6.2 million to mitigate “causes of non-appearance,” including funds to provide transportation, childcare, cell phones, and housing to arrestees.
Hidalgo did not permit the commissioners to vote on a motion from Cagle requesting equivalent funds for indigent victims of crime at the July 2019 meeting.
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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.