The stalled criminal justice system in Texas due to the COVID-19 pandemic has had an unforeseen effect on incarceration rates, leaving county jails facing an overcrowding crisis at a time when they are hotbeds of infection.
The pandemic has disrupted life in Texas at all levels and criminal justice is no exception. State prisons stopped accepting new inmates for several months last year. Many counties have not held a single criminal trial since March 2020, the Texas Tribune reported.
However, the pandemic has not stopped crimes being committed in Texas. Now many county jails are running out of room, according to the report.
Brandon Wood, executive director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, warned many counties face population issues in their jails. “All along we knew that the speed at which the courts were operating would eventually create another issue, and it’s starting to have that impact,” he said.
Texas’ prisons and jails are notorious for their poor conditions. The state’s lockups have witnessed some of the highest levels of COVID-19 deaths in the nation. At least 190 inmates had died of COVID-19 by late 2020 and the figure is now likely to be considerably higher. Some inmates have sued over the COVID crisis in Texas lockups.
The lack of space in county jails is now alarming officials charged with implementing social distancing measures. It has compromised efforts to quarantine new arrivals who may have been exposed to COVID.
This is a worrying situation Most of the people housed in county jails are yet to be convicted of a crime or are serving short sentences for misdemeanors. Now that fewer defendants are receiving court dates, officials are desperately looking for solutions to keep down the population in county jails.
The Tribune reported Hidalgo County is now housing hundreds of inmates in neighboring counties or using a private, federal lockup.
In Harris County, the sheriff recently pleaded with a federal judge to address the issues of an overcrowded jail in Houston where six inmates and two employees succumbed to COVID-19. The sheriff warned inmates are being released too slowly from Harris County Jail.
The situation is less acute in Dallas County which has made greater use of bond hearings for its inmates. The district attorney has placed greater emphasis on not prosecuting low-level offenders and diverting others to diversion and treatment options. Judges have held virtual hearings with inmates who are in jails and imposed more widespread conditions of release such as GPS ankle monitoring.
Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price said the first consideration is whether a defendant can be released and is not a danger to the public.
Some lawmakers including Texas Governor Greg Abbott have expressed opposition to measures to implement a more widespread release from jails and prisons during the COVID-19 crisis.
In 2020, a study in Harris County suggested the release of more people accused of misdemeanors from jail with no or reduced bail amounts did not impact how often these defendants were arrested for new crimes. The pandemic has elevated the ongoing battle over bail reforms being fought in the courts in Texas.
As Dallas-based criminal defense attorneys, we are acutely aware of the elevated dangers faced by inmates in jails. We are aware of cases of defendants who were arrested for minor matters and died before they gained a court hearing to protest their innocence. We will do everything in our power to keep you out of potentially-deadly jails. Call us at (214) 720-9552.