Court order stops inmate releases shortly after first group leaves Texas Jail

KHOU11 reports the release of Harris County Jail inmates was stopped in its tracks Friday a few hours after it started.

The first group of 12 nonviolent offenders who met requirements specified in an emergency order were released to help stop the spread of COVID-19.

Not long after they left, a court order was issued ordering Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez to stop releasing felony inmates.

Earlier this week, the sheriff was ordered to release about 1,000 inmates by County Judge Lina Hidalgo, who called the jail a “ticking time bomb” for coronavirus.

“It basically tells me the script is going to keep changing,” said Andy Kahan, Director of Victims’ Services at Crime Stoppers.

He was surprised to learn Harris County District Criminal Court Administrative Judge Herb Ritchie stepped in. The release so far are all had non-violent charges ranging from drug possession to fraud.

However, several cases caught Kahan’s eye: A 53-year-old man charged with theft, a case where prosecutors actually asked for a high bond because the man had nine previous felony convictions.

Then, there’s a 34-year-old man charged with unauthorized use of a vehicle and evading arrest. Prosecutors objected to a personal bond because he had a prior aggravated assault charge that was pled down to deadly conduct and he poses a significant risk to the community.

“The ones we saw that were actually released are career, non-violent, habitual offenders with rap sheets,” Kahan said.

However, a defense attorney representing a 25-year-old man who was released disagrees.

“He doesn’t have a violent history. This his first felony,” said Equator L. Turner.

Her client was charged with tampering with a government record. Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo wants inmates like him released because she says she’s trying to prevent an outbreak in the jail that could clog our hospital system.

“We don’t want someone who is going to break into homes, we want to make sure we stay safe during this time, he’s OK, he’s OK to be released into the community,” she said.

Three Harris County Jail inmates and one jailer have tested positive for COVID-19. Thirty more are awaiting test results, and 800 are in quarantine as a precaution.

Friday’s court order from the Criminal District Courts says Hidalgo and Gonzalez don’t have jurisdiction over releasing felony inmates.

“This is obviously a legal matter and I have two conflicting legal documents. I’m a cop, not a lawyer. I’ll let the lawyers figure it out,” Sheriff Gonzalez tweeted. “I respect the separation of powers. I’ve said before, I have no say in who is in our out of jail, my role is to manage the system.”