Federal judge denies motion ordering release of up to 4,000 Harris County Jail inmates

As the number of positive coronavirus cases among both Harris County Jail inmates and employees continues to climb, Federal Judge Lee Rosenthal rejected a petition for the emergency release of up to 4,000 inmates. (Courtesy Brian Jackson/Adobe Stock)
As the number of positive coronavirus cases among both Harris County Jail inmates and employees continues to climb, Federal Judge Lee Rosenthal rejected a petition for the emergency release of up to 4,000 inmates. (Courtesy Brian Jackson/Adobe Stock)

As the number of positive coronavirus cases among both Harris County Jail inmates and employees continues to climb, Federal Judge Lee Rosenthal rejected a petition for the emergency release of up to 4,000 inmates. (Courtesy Brian Jackson/Adobe Stock)

As the number of positive coronavirus cases among both Harris County Jail inmates and employees continues to climb, U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal rejected a petition April 14 for the emergency release of up to 4,000 inmates.

The motion—filed by plaintiffs in Russell v. Harris County, a lawsuit regarding felony bail practices—asked for a 14-day emergency order from Rosenthal in light of the coronavirus that would require Harris County not to enforce pretrial detention orders for felony detainees who were being detained because they could not afford bail.

In her ruling, Rosenthal wrote it would be risky for a federal district court to "wade into policy and political disagreements among state and county elected officials." She also argued the plaintiffs failed to prove the emergency release would be in the public interest.

"Granting temporary relief and allowing the alleged lengthy detention both present risks," she wrote. "There is the threat of releasing on a personal bond those who should not be released because of risks such as not only failure to appear, but also of new offenses. On the other hand, there is the risk that if they are detained in tight jail conditions, they may have a greater likelihood of being infected or infecting others, as well as the risks of the collateral consequences of prolonged wealth-based detention and constitutional violations. The court cannot find that the present record, sparse and fast-changing as it is, meets the plaintiffs’ burden to show that it is in the public interest to grant the relief sought, or that denying it will disserve the public interest."

Harris County officials have advocated for their own version of what they have called "compassionate release" of jail inmates, though their efforts dealt exclusively with certain pretrial inmates who did not have any history of violent crime. As previously reported by Community Impact Newspaper, Hidalgo authorized a review process for the release of inmates March 31, but the order was voided by administrative Judge Herb Ritchie on April 3, shortly after the first few inmates were released.

The subject was further discussed by Harris County Commissioners Court during a meeting April 7.

In her ruling, Rosenthal acknowledged efforts that have taken place since then to release inmates in compliance with both Hidalgo's and Ritchie's orders. Since April 13, the county has temporarily released 372 inmates using a review process that includes the sheriff, the Harris County Justice Administration Department, the district attorney's office, the public defender's office and state district judges.

"The court does not want to disrupt the laudable existing efforts to address the crisis," Rosenthal wrote. "Disrupting a process that strives to recognize the different interests and concerns is an added risk of intruding with a temporary restraining order that is backed by the threat of contempt."

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, filed an amicus brief objecting to the release of Harris County inmates April 8 along with a number of other Houston area representatives. In an April 15 press release, Bettencourt lauded the decision.

"Ordering mass inmate release has been tried three times now," Bettencourt said. "First, Judge Hidalgo’s overreaching order was stopped. Next, Sheriff Gonzalez and sixteen Harris County misdemeanor judges sued in Travis County but were blocked by the Texas Supreme Court, and now a Federal Court has said no again on an existing federal suit. This is a victory for the citizens."

Although Rosenthal denied the motion for a restraining order, she left it open for plaintiffs to return with new information in the future, including on delays for bail hearings and on the number of arrestees and workers who test positive for COVID-19.

"The court has not addressed, much less foreclosed, the substantive issues on the merits," she wrote. "The court is not foreclosing any party or interested nonparty from raising additional issues or substantially different facts that this pandemic continues to produce."

As of April 15, the Harris County Sheriff's Office reported 85 jail employees and 68 inmates had tested positive for the coronavirus.

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