Criminal JusticeLocal NewsOnly 60 of Harris County Sheriff’s List of Inmates Approved for COVID-19 Release, Federal Judge Laments Slow Process

A federal judge in Houston is urging county officials to expedite releases from the Harris County jail, but declined to order immediate automatic bail hearings.
January 27, 2021
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At a hearing in federal court Tuesday, parties to a lawsuit over felony bail bond policies discussed a request from Sheriff Ed Gonzalez before the court to release more than 1,500 inmates from the Harris County jail system in light of COVID-19 concerns.

Chief U.S. District Court Judge Lee H. Rosenthal, presiding over Russell v Harris County, held yesterday’s conference via Zoom to inquire about the progress of releasing eligible inmates.

Of the 1,543 inmates on the sheriff’s list, only 60 have been approved by Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg’s office; the remainder either have immigration holds or hold for extradition to other jurisdictions, their pending case is of a violent nature, or they face multiple other charges and were out on bond when arrested for a new offense. 

An attorney representing the sheriff, Murray Fogler, told Rosenthal that since the last conference the jail population had fallen below 9,000 inmates to about 8,800, but that of the 60 inmates approved for release, only seven had been processed. 

“The progress is excruciatingly slow,” said Fogler.

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Noting that there had been a reduction of approximately 25 percent in arrests leading to processing through the jail over last year, Fogler said the courts were not pushing the hearings, and clearance of cases remained dismally low.

According to the county public defender’s office, one of the cases approved but not yet processed involved a 17-year-old girl who had been trafficked and whose family did not wish to have her released yet since they believed she had mental health issues and would be safer in custody for the time being.

Rosenthal asked that the parties provide a list of those approved for release to be sent to the judges to strongly encourage them to quickly hold hearings and process those inmates out of the system.

Defendant’s counsel also informed Rosenthal that some of the individuals released previously from a non-objected list had failed to appear and committed new offenses after release.

While acknowledging concerns over recidivism, Rosenthal said, “Human beings are what we are; there is no guarantee.”

Another issue highlighted by plaintiff’s attorney Elizabeth Rossi of the Civil Rights Corp is that inmates held on both new charges and parole holds may have legal representation for the new charges but not for the alleged parole violation. Consequently, she says the attorneys, often court-appointed, simply do not advocate for the client since it is assumed the suspect will not be released due to parole violations.

Rossi pressed the judge to order automatic bail hearings, but Rosenthal dismissed the request.

“You’re asking for something that I have a difficult time right now finding the authority to do,” said Rosenthal.

Instead, the judge urged the parties to collaborate on possible solutions to the hold issues and work with judges to move cases more swiftly.

She also referred to Governor Greg Abbott’s recent public safety roundtable in which he signaled support for bail reforms, and the possibility that the Texas legislature may address the issues during this year’s legislative session. 

Saying she would move quickly on a plaintiff’s motion to dismiss felony judges as defendants, Rosenthal asked for possible next steps and whether a mediator between parties might be useful.

Plaintiff’s attorney Neal Manne said that while collaborative discussions had not yielded agreements, they did not seek a mediator or involvement by the court at this time. 

In response to Rosenthal’s suggestion that the parties continue to develop lists of inmates eligible for expedited hearings and release and provide those to the respective courts, Manne said without specific orders from the court, little would change.

“The discussion about policy which the court has had, hasn’t persuaded anyone,” said Manne. “The people on this call who have the ability to genuinely change…they’re not in agreement on these policy choices.” 

Rossi suggested that the district attorney’s office file notifications to the clerk in the appropriate court regarding the 53 considered eligible for release as a means to get the cases on the docket.

Scott Durfee with the district attorney’s office responded that they would take the suggestion under advisement and they would take a look at what the process would be.

Staffing and workload problems in the district attorney’s office were also discussed at the Harris County Commissioners Court Tuesday, and the court approved an expenditure of $1,365,000 for a temporary addition of 22 positions through July of 2021. Previous requests for additional prosecutors and staff presented to the county have been denied by commissioners along party lines.  

Rosenthal noted at the beginning of the conference that many valuable lessons had been learned on implementation and approach from the ODonnell consent decree, which largely governs misdemeanor bail policy in the county.  

Attorney Allen Van Fleet told Rosenthal that the criminal court judges he represents as intervenors in the Russell case are seeking to provide an internal remedy along the lines of “Rule 9,” a policy that had been adopted in the county for misdemeanor bail setting prior to the ODonnell settlement. 

He also noted the misdemeanor judges had crafted a checklist for hearing officers to ensure compliance with the ODonnell requirements, and that since the same hearing officers also handled felony cases, he hoped they would apply the same principles to felony bond settings.

“The ODonnell constitutional requirements apply as well in felony cases.”

One of the judges Van Fleet represents presides over the 182nd District Court, which has been in the news this week since that court granted three felony personal recognizance bonds in 2020 to a six-time felon now accused of raping a 16-year-old girl.

The next hearing in the Russell case will be on February 5, 2021.

UPDATE: On January 27, it was reported that the 23 Harris County judges serving as defendants in the Russell care were dropped from the lawsuit. 

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Holly Hansen

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.