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County, State Officials Clash On How To Thin Jail Populations To Slow COVID-19

Gov. Greg Abbott and some of the largest Texas counties have been wrestling with how to thin jail populations in order to help stem the spread of COVID-19 and, at the same time, keep communities safe. Not everyone agrees on how to balance the two goals.
Associated Press
Gov. Greg Abbott and some of the largest Texas counties have been wrestling with how to thin jail populations in order to help stem the spread of COVID-19 and, at the same time, keep communities safe. Not everyone agrees on how to balance the two goals.

As Texas' two largest counties are struggling to contain outbreaks of coronavirus in their jails, local officials everywhere are hoping to keep COVID-19 out of their local lockups.

Statewide, they've laid plans for inmates exposed to the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, and they've worked to shrink jail populations using a combination of getting people out and slashing the number of people going in.

The close conditions in jails and regular churn of people locked up presents an ideal environment for infectious diseases to spread. Combine that with higher rates of health issues among inmates and often-overtaxed jail health systems, it's a recipe for potentially devastating consequences for both the people locked up and the jail staff members charged with their care, experts say.

This week, as counties continued to cut the number of people in jail, Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order blocking the release of those he called "dangerous felons" from the state's prisons and jails. All this talk of letting people out of jail had made some people nervous, he said, and he wanted to reassure Texans that public safety is still paramount.

"Releasing dangerous criminals from jails into the streets is not the solution," the governor said at a Sunday press briefing, as he acknowledged the concerns about coronavirus outbreaks in lockups.

The order blocks counties from freeing people serving jail sentences for violent crimes early, or giving them an alternative like electronic monitoring. But the governor didn't stop with people who've been convicted of crimes.

The order also includes people who've been arrested and are facing charges of violent crimes or threatening violence – who are legally innocent while they await trial. At the beginning of March, 63% of people in Texas jails were being held pre-trial, according to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.

Democrats Disagree

It can get a little complicated, but the question that has frustrated some of the Democrats who run the state's largest counties has to do with the order's uneven effect based on an arrested individual's wealth.

After you're arrested, in most counties, a judge will set a bond, based on your crime and – at least hypothetically – your prior record. Basically, how much cash bail you'll need to pay to get out. If you've got the money, you pay your bond, or hire a bail bondsman to vouch for you, and go home.

If you don't have the cash, though, you can get stuck in jail. So there's been a push to issue more personal bonds to get people out of jail who can't come up with bail money. Personal bonds are basically a promise to show up on your court date and stay out of trouble. You'll still owe the court money if you don't show up for trial, but you don't have to put cash down to get out of jail beforehand.

The governor's order makes it illegal to give personal bonds to people arrested for violent crimes. The order also prohibits personal bonds for people arrested for nonviolent crimes but had previously been convicted of a violent crime.

"I obviously don't agree with Governor Abbott's order," said Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins. "It makes no sense to me."

Imagine you're a cash-flush gang member charged with violent crimes, the judge said Wednesday. You're going to be able to get the cash to get out of jail, "but if you're a poor person, you have to stay in jail."

"Someone who is similarly situated with the same offense but has $500 in the bank can get out of jail, so where's the protection of the community in that instance?" asked Bexar County District Attorney Joe Gonzalez at an online town hall with activists on Wednesday.

In Harris County, judges who oversee misdemeanor cases sent a letter to the governor on Tuesday saying that they can't comply with his order, because it conflicts with a federal court order that determines how bail is determined in Houston and other cities in the state's largest county.

Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot questioned whether the order is legal or enforceable, and suggested judges in Dallas County might consider setting a one-penny bond instead of a personal bond, to help move people out of the jail.

He said the order, ultimately, felt pretty meaningless.

"I'm not sure that it has any practical impact in Dallas," Creuzot said. "So far, it hasn't changed a thing."

Jail Populations Dropping

Politics and ideology aside, county officials across Texas have reduced jail populations in the face of COVID-19.

Dallas County's jail population dropped by more than 500, from 5,879 to 5,309, since March 1. Denton and Collin Counties each have 200 people in each of their lockups. Tarrant County cut its jail population by more than 700, putting the population at its lowest level in two years.

"It's kind of a collaborative among every department in the county, the court system, probation," said Lt. Jennifer Gabbert from the Tarrant County Sheriff's Office. No COVID-19 cases have been detected in the Tarrant County jail.

Cuts in jail populations statewide have taken on a variety of strategies. In some places, that's meant adjusting the amount of credit people get for time served, and letting out people who have just a short time left on their sentences, or moving people to probation to get them out of the jail. It means expediting plea hearings and holding them by video. Police departments are arresting fewer people, and issuing citations for minor crimes. Some counties are telling people sentenced to serve weekends in jail, to stay home and serve their time later.

"I think that we are going to learn very quickly that we can implement a lot of these measures without putting public safety at risk," says Michele Deitch, who researches incarceration at the University of Texas-Austin and is advising jails on coronavirus preparations. "In fact, it'll reduce the risk to public safety by reducing the spread of the illness."

Jail Conditions Can Spread Coronavirus

In many jails, the coronavirus pandemic has resulted in canceled group activities, increased sanitizing practices, health screening and temperature checks for new inmates and guards. But even with these changes, social distancing isn't realistic for many inmates and guards. Dining, showering and recreation are all communal activities. Bigger jails house inmates in shared pods, and smaller jails may only have one or two large cells where inmates are grouped together.

"I'm most worried about the small jails," Deitch says. "They have fewer opportunities to separate people who are ill, they have less well-developed health care systems, and they don't tend to be in communities that have the medical resources to deal with a bad outbreak."

Deitch says that for many jails, Purell is contraband, and inmates don't have access to cleaning supplies to clean their bunks.

On top of that, jails hold a population that is more medically vulnerable than the general population.

"Most people who are incarcerated in jails tend to have a slew of medical problems," Deitch says.

National statistics show jail inmates are significantly more likely to have chronic conditions like asthma or diabetes than the general population. They're more likely to have a history of substance abuse, smoking and inconsistent or inadequate health care. Meanwhile, the quality of health care inside a jail varies widely, Deitch says, and even the best jail health systems in the state struggle to meet every day needs under normal circumstances.

"That's why this is such a desperate situation, and there's such a need to reduce those populations as much as possible," Deitch says.

That, she says, requires every player in the justice system working together.

Christopher Connelly is a reporter covering issues related to financial instability and poverty for KERA’s One Crisis Away series. In 2015, he joined KERA to report on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. From Fort Worth, he also focused on politics and criminal justice stories.