Texas judge asks for release of nearly 2K inmates to avoid 'killing field'

The Harris County Jail could run out of room to house inmates this weekend


By Gabrielle Banks
Houston Chronicle

HARRIS COUNTY, Texas — This weekend, the Harris County Jail could run out of room to house inmates. And guards are struggling to pull off quarantines for new arrivals, according to Harris County sheriff's officials.

A federal judge seeking to prevent the downtown facility from becoming a "killing field" amid soaring COVID-19 infections asked state judges, lawyers and court officials on Friday to swiftly review more than 1,900 inmates for bail reductions or pretrial or post-conviction releases.

However, a civil rights lawyer for indigent defendants said the judge's request felt like "Groundhog Day," meaning it was reminiscent of a similar attempt that largely failed in the early days of the pandemic.

The call to action by Judge Lee H. Rosenthal came in response to concerns from Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, who oversees the the nation's second largest lockup, that the jail population had surpassed 9,000, beyond its pre-COVID capacity.

The chief federal judge for a large swath of Texas addressed the key players who could make this happen — the county's felony judges, district attorney and public defender — during a hearing on a civil rights case challenging the county's felony bail practices.

Rosenthal set the tone at the Zoom gathering with a speech: "Nobody on this call wants the Harris County Jail housing people who have been convicted of nothing, who are innocent. We do no want to convert detention into a death sentence. We do not want to infect our civilians, guards, the people who feed and clean and take care of our inmates and go home to their families to put them at risk — and the risks of doing that are higher now with the specter of more contagious variants looming. Nobody wants to turn the jail into a killing field."

She then opened up the floor for suggestions and quickly dealt out assignments for how officials could process the suggested releases. But the onus is ultimately on criminal judges, prosecutors and defense lawyers to bring the proposed releases to fruition.

The measures officials will take in the following days include a review of whether 1,543 people with bail set at $10,000 or lower can be released on a general or nominal bond.'Among that total, the sheriff identified a list of 114 misdemeanor defendants and 906 felony defendants without holds who fit this criteria. District Attorney Kim Ogg agreed to review these cases by early Thursday to determine whether prosecutors want to challenge proposed bond reductions for people who can't come up with $1,000 or less to get themselves out of jail.

Rosenthal also asked the DA to review releases for another list of about 360 people the sheriff's office flagged who are awaiting trial on nonviolent offenses.

The judge said that Public Defender Alex Bunin must be notified if any of the people being considered for release do not have lawyers assigned.

In addition, the federal judge suggested, based on recommendations by plaintiff's counsel for indigent defendants at the jail, that the jail work toward releasing 426 people who are at the jail only because the halfway houses and other post-conviction programs they should be participating in are closed due to COVID.

The sheriff's lawyer, Murray Fogler, was hopeful that, "This will do some good for some people, but it may not alleviate the entire issue."

Neal Manne, a pro bono lawyer for the indigent defendants in the bail lawsuit, said Rosenthal asking these judges to take action doesn't mean they will. He noted that even though Zoom bail hearings were available to judges, only 72 defendants were granted such hearings during a six-month stretch ending in October.

"Not even if she says, 'Pretty please?' She has said 'Pretty please?' It's like 'Groundhog Day,'" Manne said, following the hearing.

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(c)2021 the Houston Chronicle

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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