Although more successful in cities like New York and Chicago, those advocating for a radical reformation of criminal policy have also targeted urban areas of Texas, particularly Harris County, the most populous county in the state. For a few weeks, they seemed poised for a major victory.
But behind the scenes, a plea for assistance to the highest levels of state government played a pivotal role in thwarting a plan to depopulate the county’s jails.
What follows is a timeline of how the battle over jail releases has played out in Harris County.
January 2019: More than a year before coronavirus became a household word, attorneys file a lawsuit on behalf of three inmates detained in the Harris County jail. Russell et al v Harris County alleges that plaintiffs held on felony charges only remained in detention because they were too poor to pay bail.
The only defendants named are Harris County and Sheriff Ed Gonzalez (D).
One of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, Alec Karakatsanis, advocates dismantling the American justice system and refers to all incarcerations for criminal activity as “human caging.” In a 2019 article published in the Yale Law Journal, he accuses Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg (D) of what he calls “rule of law deception.”
But little occurs with the case for more than a year.
March 2020: Political leaders ramp up emergency policies intended to stop the spread of coronavirus, and some include policies for jails where close quarters and inability to fully quarantine suspected cases seemed to guarantee to spread infection.
Although some Harris County criminal court judges had already been issuing minimal bonds and lenient release conditions for felony suspects, even violent offenders cite coronavirus as a reason for release.
March 19: After arguing that continued detention puts him at risk for coronavirus, a murder suspect with a prior conviction is released in Harris County on personal recognizance (PR) bond after being ordered to pay just 3.5 percent of his original $60,000 bond.
On the same day, Sheriff Gonzalez takes to social media to “dispel rumors,” but also to argue for the release of “at-risk” inmates.
March 21: Harris County Administrative Judge Herb Ritchie signs new General Order Bond guidelines authorizing the immediate release of suspects charged with certain felonies, including theft, fraud, and criminal mischief.
Reports indicated Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo is considering emergency orders to allow for broad-scale “compassionate release” of jail inmates.
March 25: A ruling from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton warns that local officials have limited authority, leading Hidalgo to delay pending jail release orders while her legal team analyzes the AG ruling.
March 27: Plaintiffs’ attorneys for Russell v Harris County file an emergency motion demanding that Chief U.S. District Court Judge Lee H. Rosenthal order either immediate hearings or immediate release of approximately 4,000 inmates in the Harris County Jail due to coronavirus concerns.
According to multiple sources familiar with the matter, later that day, Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis holds a conference call with Hidalgo, Hidalgo’s general counsel Kathryn Kase, and select Democrat elected officials, in which they discuss a potential county order that would release the majority of inmates in the county jail system
On the following morning details of the call are leaked to Houston activist Don Hooper, who then calls State Senator Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston).
“I immediately called Paxton and Lt. Governor Dan Patrick,” Bettencourt told The Texan. “I told them we have an urgent and very serious situation and we need help.”
March 29: In a Sunday afternoon press conference, Governor Abbott announces new executive orders, including GA-13, which suspends portions of Texas criminal code and prohibits the release of any suspects accused of crimes involving violence or the threat of violence, or with prior convictions involving violence.
At the same time, Paxton files a motion to intervene in the federal lawsuit, Russell v Harris County, on behalf of the State of Texas, Governor Greg Abbott, and the Attorney General.
Judge Rosenthal grants the motion the next day, effectively making the State of Texas a party to the lawsuit.
March 31: County Judge Lina Hidalgo announces she will issue her own emergency orders allowing for the release of “non-violent” felony suspects from the county jail.
April 1: Sheriff Gonzalez submits lists of 1,470 jail inmates he says should be released.
Of the 125 “medically vulnerable,” the district attorney flags 111 for prior convictions of violent crime or unwanted sexual conduct.
Plaintiffs’ attorneys in Russell v Harris County file a second emergency motion asking the federal judge to rule Governor Abbott’s executive order GA-13 unconstitutional.
April 3: Harris County Administrative Judge Herb Ritchie issues an order to the sheriff to “ignore and wholly disregard” Hidalgo’s orders since she has no legal authority over operation of the criminal courts.
Ritchie does assert that criminal court judges can order releases. Elected judges and appointed magistrates continue to release felony suspects on minimal cost personal bonds.
April 7: Led by Sen. Bettencourt, nine Harris County area legislators together file an amicus brief in federal court opposing the release of jail inmates over coronavirus concerns.
In addition to Bettencourt, State Representatives Sam Harless (R-Spring), Dan Huberty (R-Houston), Briscoe Cain (R-Deer Park), Dennis Paul (R-Houston), Tom Oliverson (R-Cypress), Jim Murphy (R-Houston), Dwayne Bohac (R-Houston), and Valoree Swanson (R-Spring) all sign on.
Area law enforcement led by Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo along with District Attorney Kim Ogg and representatives from Crime Stoppers-Houston also hold a press conference to highlight the number of dangerous felony suspects being released by county criminal court judges.
April 8: 16 Harris County misdemeanor court judges, including avowed socialist Franklin Bynum, join the NAACP and several defense attorney associations to file another lawsuit in a state district court, but in Travis County. Plaintiffs claim that GA-13 interferes with their ability to set bonds and conflicts with terms of a misdemeanor bond settlement governing Harris County.
April 9: A third lawsuit, Sanchez v Dallas County Sheriff, is filed in another federal court in Dallas. Plaintiffs are represented by numerous attorneys, including Elizabeth Rossi from the Harris County lawsuit. They request a temporary restraining order seeking the release of inmates, including murder suspect Billy Chemirmir.
The state, governor, and attorney general are later granted intervenor status in this lawsuit too.
April 10: State District Court Judge Lora Livingstone in Travis County issues a temporary restraining order halting the governor’s order GA-13.
April 11: In response to an emergency appeal from the attorney general, the Supreme Court of Texas issues a stay of Judge Livingstone’s order, thus allowing the governor’s order GA-13 to remain active.
April 14: Judge Rosenthal officially denies “without prejudice” plaintiffs’ motions for temporary restraining orders (TRO) that would immediately release inmates and block the governor’s executive order GA-13. The judge orders county officials to continue to report on bail setting and release procedures in the county as the case moves forward.
Despite the State Supreme Court’s stay and refusal on the part of Judge Rosenthal to grant an emergency TRO, some Harris County judges and magistrates continue to issue low-cost personal bonds.
In one case, Magistrate Jennifer Gaut ignores the district attorney’s request for a $50,000 bond and instead awards a $500 bond to Timothy Singleton, a felony suspect charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, and with prior convictions for assaulting a family member, robbery, credit abuse, delivery of a controlled substance, and failing to show up for court appearances.
203rd District Court Judge Chris Morton upholds the $500 bond. After release, Singleton allegedly breaks into the home of an ex-girlfriend and assaults both the woman and her grandmother.
The district attorney, employing a long-ignored section of Texas criminal code (16:16), then appeals to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.
April 17: In a unanimous ruling, the Court of Criminal Appeals rules against Magistrate Gaut and Judge Morton. They set Singleton’s new bail at $100,000 and issue a warrant for his arrest.
Singleton is still an at-large fugitive.
The lawsuits remain pending, but now that the State of Texas has been granted status in both federal cases, any future decisions from those courts can be appealed to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court.
“This radical push has been a mantra of the leftist, progressive socialists for a while, and they might have gotten it done if good people hadn’t gotten involved quickly,” said Bettencourt.
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Holly Hansen is a regional reporter for The Texan 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.