KATY MAGAZINE NEWS
April 2, 2020
By Natalie Cook Clark
Judge Lina Hidalgo sent Harris County officials an emergency order mandating the temporary release of a select group of inmates. Although she stressed that they would only be non-violent offenders, Hildago’s order still has many Harris County officials and residents concerned. In addition to the order issued April 1, local judges have routinely set extremely low bonds in an effort not to crowd an already-crowded jail system in Texas’ largest county.
Judge Lina Hidalgo sent Harris County officials an emergency order mandating the temporary release of a select group of inmates. Although she stressed that they would only be non-violent offenders, Hildago’s order still has many Harris County officials and residents concerned.
On Tuesday, Hildago said this situation could be a “ticking time bomb” if not dealt with quickly. "New cases will spread like wildfire if we don't take quick action," she added.
This temporary measure aims to control the spread of COVID-19. Hidalgo stressed that the accused’s crimes will not go away. Many will be wearing ankle monitors and will have strict breathalyzer requirements.
Residents Angered by Release of Inmates
Still, this Order is causing great concern among Harris County residents.
“I hope Harris County is ready for these hard criminals to cause terror in the streets and commit more crimes than ever before,” says one concerned resident. “Harris County, you will be held accountable.”
“Harris County is setting themselves up for a lawsuit if they let the wrong one out,” says another resident. The comments from concerned residents on social media go on and on.
“And they should be concerned,” says Andy Kahan, Director of Victim Services and Advocacy with Crime Stoppers Houston. “This is a public safety health crisis that will lead to human carnage.”
Sheriff Explains Release Process
“No perfect solutions exist, but they are for the greater good of the public at large,” says Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez.
Approximately 1000 Harris County inmates will be considered for release.
"My Office is only tasked with submitting a draft list of “potential” defendants that fit the criteria," Gonzalez tweeted. "The Order further spells out that the lists are to be reviewed by listed Criminal Justice Stakeholders for further vetting on additional safeguards that may disqualify defendants."
Gonzalez further explained on Twitter that Pre-trial services furthers vets the list and will issue the release orders.
"I only manage the jail, I do not decide who’s in or out," says Gonzalez.
Local Judges Setting Low Bonds
“This is actually two issues confusing to the public,” explains Kahan. “The order by the judge strictly deals with non-violence offenders awaiting court rulings. The county judge cannot make decision for the release of felons. Governor Abbott says that you can’t release violent offenders on PR (Personal Recognizance) bonds. So now the real alarming thing we’re seeing is that felony courts are low balling bail bonds making it easier for violent offenders to get back on the streets awaiting their trial.”
According to Sheriff Gonzalez's Twitter post, “The setting of bail is strictly a judicial function and my Office has no say. While I respect the separation of power, at a personal level I’m deeply concerned. At this critical juncture, we need sensible decisions that keep the community at large in mind.”
“I’ve been in this industry since 1984 and I have never seen a $10 bond set for a robbery,” says Kahan.
The concern over low bail bonds being granted is something that Kahan has been investigating, even before the current pandemic.
“I’ve been asking for information on PR bonds for months,” Kahan says. “The court system and judges have not been forthcoming.”
But no official report on this growing concern hasn’t stopped Kahan. He’s been looking at daily booking sheets and at the violent offenders’ bonds.
“Two-thirds of those released on PR bonds have a domestic violence component to their charge,” says Kahan.
Kahan, with his position in Crime Stoppers Houston, has reached out to authorities to see what defines a non-violent crime. He got the judges to confirm that those accused of home burglaries, with protective orders, or a third DWI will not be released.
“While home burglary without violence is considered a non-violent crime, I argue that it is a violent crime waiting to happen,” says Kahan.
Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo released a statement expressing his disagreement and concern over the release of these inmates.
“These are unprecedented times and call for immediate and emergency measures, such as this one,” says Sheriff Gonzalez. “If we do not take this action, we will have a public health disaster not only for the jail, but for all of Harris County on our hands.”
Crime Stoppers Houston is doing their part to educate the community. They are producing virtual lessons everyday.
These criminal releases are currently only happening in Harris County. Fort Bend County has no plans or the need to take such action.
Fort Bend County Inmates
“Our jail currently has 900 inmates and we have beds for 1,800,” says Major Chad Norvell with the Fort Bend County Sheriff’s office. “We have not had any inmates test positive for COVID-19.”
“We keep the facility very clean,” stresses Norvell. “We have trustees that spray and wipe doorknobs and other surfaces all day long. We also check all incoming inmates and we don’t let them in if they exhibit any symptoms. If someone has symptoms, they are sent to a hospital by whatever agency brought them in.”
Novell reported the volume of crimes has been reduced.
“With so many people staying home it has reduced traffic offenses and many crimes,” says Norvell. We have not seen an uptake in domestic-related offenses.
Unfortunately, Norvell reported a different demographic involved in recent crimes.
“We have seen an increase in teen criminals breaking into cars since school has been out,” says Norvell. “We made two arrests on that this morning.”
Kahan says Crime Stoppers Houston and their partners are all working together.
“We will be given a list of those to be released and we will conduct our own vetting,” says Kahan. “There will be a vetting process and this will take some time. They aren’t going to open the doors and 1,000 inmates will walk out.”
Free Service Offered to Victims
“We are all going through emotional turmoil,” says Kahan. “Now imagine that you are a victim and you learn that the criminal who victimized you has now been released because of the coronavirus.”
Kahan suggests victims to register themselves with VINE (Victim Information and Notification Everyday) to ensure that they will be notified if their offenders will be released. VINE is a free service open to the public, and available in English and Spanish.