Judge orders halt to Harris County inmate release

A Harris County administrative judge has ordered county officials to "wholly disregard" an order from Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo that involved releasing certain nonviolent inmates from the Harris County Jail. (Courtesy Brian Jackson/Adobe Stock)
A Harris County administrative judge has ordered county officials to "wholly disregard" an order from Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo that involved releasing certain nonviolent inmates from the Harris County Jail. (Courtesy Brian Jackson/Adobe Stock)

A Harris County administrative judge has ordered county officials to "wholly disregard" an order from Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo that involved releasing certain nonviolent inmates from the Harris County Jail. (Courtesy Brian Jackson/Adobe Stock)

A Harris County administrative judge has voided an order from County Judge Lina Hidalgo authorizing a review process for the release of some nonviolent inmates from the Harris County Jail shortly after the first few inmates were released April 3.

Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez tweeted that the sheriff's office is complying with the new order, which was signed by Herb Ritchie, an administrative judge with the Harris County District Courts Trying Criminal Cases.

The initial order from Hidalgo was signed April 1. It called on Gonzalez to lead an effort to compile a list of detainees who were eligible for release under the order's guidelines. Eligible inmates had to be in the jail pretrial and could not have already been convicted of a crime, could not have a history of violent crime or threats, and could not be in jail for certain crimes such as burglary of a home or a third DWI, among other criteria. Inmates who showed symptoms for COVID-19 would also not be released under the order.

The list from Gonzalez would then be reviewed by a group of criminal justice stakeholders. Any released inmate would have been supervised by Harris County Pretrial Services and would be required to appear in court as directed.

In a March 31 press conference announcing the order, Hidalgo said it was based on recommendations from medical experts who saw the jail as a location where a coronavirus outbreak could take place.

"Public health experts have made clear that it’s a dangerous situation," she said. "The cramped conditions there make it virtually impossible to enforce social distancing [and] proper quarantining of sick people."


An estimated 8,000 inmates are currently housed in the jail, and another 3,000 or so employees and contractors go in and out of the jail on a regular basis, Hidalgo said. As of April 3, five employees of the sheriff's office stationed at the jail and three inmates have tested positive for COVID-19. Another 33 inmates show symptoms of the virus and have been quarantined, according to the sheriff's office.



The text of Ritchie's order was shared by Gonzalez on Twitter. In the order, Ritchie ordered the sheriff, pretrial services, and the County Community Supervisors and Corrections Department to "ignore and wholly disregard" the order after finding that "only the State District Judges of the 22 Felony District Courts of Harris County, Texas have exclusive and constitutional statutory jurisdiction over all felony cases assigned to their respective courts, including ... the setting, raising and/or denial of bonds."

Prior to the court order, county officials said they were reviewing a list of 1,000 people who fit the criteria for Hidalgo's order, but that number was expected to go down as the review process intensified.

As of April 3, the county released the names of six inmates who have been temporarily released. Those inmates had been arrested crimes such as the unauthorized use of a vehicle, evading arrest, drug possession with intent to deliver, and fraudulent use or possession of identifying information.
By Shawn Arrajj
Shawn Arrajj serves as the editor of the Cy-Fair edition of Community Impact Newspaper where he covers the Cy-Fair and Jersey Village communities. He mainly writes about development, transportation and issues in Harris County.