“The danger presented to the public by the mass release is not really quantifiable,” said Ogg.
On March 24, JWEB, a data system used by the sheriff’s office, district attorney’s office, district clerk, and court system, failed after Harris County Universal Services attempted to conduct a maintenance procedure.
Mark Antill, information technology director for the sheriff’s office, explained that law enforcement officers were unable to run license plates or access criminal records from the field at the onset of the outage.
“We lost the computer-aided dispatch system. Any calls that came into 911 were handwritten, and radios were used to talk to patrol officers, and then they had to write it down,” said Antill, adding that his department receives about 200 calls an hour.
At the county Joint Processing Center, the number of suspects held swelled to 300, near capacity, as sheriff’s office personnel were unable to access charging and intake information. From there, 102 suspects were released since legally required probable cause hearings could not proceed.
According to Ogg, a magistrate ordered the release of another 200 suspects on personal bonds of either $10,000 or zero “regardless of what offense they were charged with whether it was murder where there was DWI.”
“Luckily, none of the known offenders that were released got out and committed more serious offenses that weekend. I can’t speak for the time since then.”
Ogg noted the dangerous situation for law enforcement officers who were then tasked with re-arresting the released suspects. She also said the crisis resulted in more than $40,000 in overtime costs for her department.
Prior to testimony from the county’s criminal justice department heads, Sindhu Menon from Universal Services gave a presentation on the root causes of the system failure with a focus on an outdated “switch” that failed after the maintenance procedure, but Commissioner Tom Ramsey (R-Pct. 3) expressed frustration at what he called the most “generic presentation” he had ever listened to.
Court Manager Ed Wells disputed statements from Menon and Universal Services Director Rick Noriega claiming that input from the criminal justice stakeholders had been included in Menon’s presentation of root causes and solutions.
“We did have an opportunity to see the report, but what was presented today was different from what we’ve seen a couple of times,” said Wells.
Ogg noted that at the onset of the outage, it was the sheriff and district attorney’s office that notified Universal Services of the problems. Burgess also described limited communication from Universal Services staff during the outage.
In 2020, in a 3 to 2 party-line vote, commissioners voted to fire the county’s chief information officer Bruce High. The commissioners court then appointed Noriega, a former Democratic state representative, to serve as head of HCUS and chief information officer.
Ramsey queried Noriega about the loss of institutional knowledge, noting that 23 experienced employees had left the Universal Services technology department in the past two years. Noriega said that at least one-third of those were contractors, others voluntarily left for other positions, a few were terminated, and some retired.
“Whether it’s a contract employee that left or a contract person or an actual employee of the county, that’s institutional knowledge walking out the door,” said Ramsey.
District Clerk Marilyn Burgess joined Ogg in calling for the county to return control of the JWEB system to the criminal justice system stakeholders, saying her department needed access to source code to correct multiple problems with the system.
“The way we’ve been doing things for the last three years isn’t working for the Harris County justice system,” said Burgess.
Although there have been seven previous JWEB outages, Antill said this is the first time the county has had to release suspects over a technology failure.
Monen emphasized that the failed “switch” was 13 years old, when such devices should be replaced every seven years. Universal Services suggested the solution should be to replace outdated equipment and create a backup library of data.
The county’s criminal justice stakeholders however insist that JWEB problems extend beyond equipment or data backups, and that there are ongoing issues with Universal Services regarding communication, knowledge of the criminal justice system, and ownership of sensitive data.
Noting that her department is statutorily liable for criminal justice processing and protection of the data, Ogg said, “We can’t be responsible for what Universal Services is not accountable for.”
“JWEB governance needs to return to justice system experts, those of us who operate the system, those of us who are lawfully responsible for the data that’s integral to that system.”
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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.