In response to the growing threat of COVID-19, some responsible public officials, activists, and experts in Harris County have demanded that non-dangerous “accused” people in the local jail be released. These are mostly individuals who have been charged but not convicted of any criminal wrongdoing. They remain incarcerated, in most cases, because they cannot afford bond.
Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzales has followed the lead of Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar, who has released several hundred non-dangerous individuals, by suggesting that Harris County take the same approach. These are both decent, public safety conscious public officials who would not put the general community at risk by releasing dangerous defendants.
U.S. District Court Judge Lee H. Rosenthal seems to agree with these public officials.
On March 27, 2020, the judge asked attorneys involved in long-running challenges to the Harris County bail system to “hammer out” plans for the release of 1,000 defendants detained on bonds of $10,000 or less.
Travis County is already way out ahead of this issue.
Travis County judges have ordered the release of all defendants accused of misdemeanor offenders from jail without having to post cash bail. The judges’ order reads: “In the interest of justice and fairness for all persons accused of misdemeanor crimes, the Travis County Court at Law Judges … have determined that all persons arrested for misdemeanor crimes should be released on personal bonds.” The order does not apply to certain assaults, repeat DWIs or individuals on probation or parole.
Amidst these well-intentioned efforts to avoid a significant health crisis in the state’s jail system posed by the COVID-19 virus, a Harris County Criminal District Court became embroiled in a political firestorm Harris County Criminal Court Judge Dasean Jones ordered the release an individual charged in a DWI-related death on a personal recognizance bond on the condition that he wear an ankle monitor. The judge ordered the compassionate release after the defendant’s attorney expressed a legitimate fear his client has about the COVID-19 virus in a jail packed with 8,000 people.
Gov. Greg Abbott decided to use this case to deflect from the mounting criticism his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic crisis has drawn.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott Behind the Curve
On March 29, 2020, Asher Hildebrand, a public policy professor at Duke University, told NBC News:
“With the nation’s second-largest population, the highest uninsured rate in the country and a Legislature that doesn’t meet at all in even years, Texas is a state in which the governor’s role during a time of crisis is indispensable. Yet [Gov.] Abbott has been behind the curve in nearly every protective measure – declaring a state of emergency, activating the National Guard, ramping up testing capacity, closing bars and restaurants [while shifting] much of the emergency response to local municipalities.”
That same day Abbott signed an executive order that bars an individual charged with or having been previously convicted of a violent crime from being released from jail without paying a bond.
Gov’s Order Unconstitutional
As Jolie McCullough and Emma Platoff reported in the Texas Tribune, “those with the same criminal history or the same charges can still walk free if they have access to cash – a distinction that bail reform attorneys argue makes the order unconstitutional.”
Abbott, as both governor and attorney general, has never been concerned about constitutional protections of criminal offenders.
And as for the governor’s assertion that his order makes the state safer during the crisis is an utter political absurdity. Allowing cash-able dangerous defendants to make bail while preventing cash-disabled offenders from making that same bail is, in its purest sense, nonsense that defies rational thought.
Unless, of course, you are Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.
Texas AG Paxton Joins Circus
Just hours after Abbott signed his executive order, Paxton filed what his office called an “intervention” to “prevent the release of thousands of felony arrestees on personal recognizance bonds, which would allow dangerous criminals to roam freely and commit during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.”
It is brutally ironic that Paxton didn’t have any problems with bail in 2015 when he posted a $35,000 bond after being indicted on felony securities fraud charges.
Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick Leads Three Stooges
And just days before the political shenanigans by Abbott and Paxton, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick made himself the laughing stock of the nation when he suggested older people would rather die than hurt the American economy. Patrick told Fox News’ Tucker Carlson that the nation’s seniors should “exchange” their lives for the protection of the American economy during the COVID-19 crisis. “My message: let’s get back to work, let’s get back to living, let’s be smart about it, and those of us who are 70-plus, we’ll take care of ourselves,” Patrick continued.
Texas needs leadership in this time of crisis – not political jockeying and pandering. The state’s top three elected officials are not serving public safety by their latest politically inspired legal actions and edicts. If anything, the “three amigos” of absurdity have put lives at risk.