Will COVID-19 Lead to Mass Inmate Releases in Texas?

On March 29, 2020, the Texas Tribune published an article on how local officials are shrinking jail populations due to the coronavirus (COVID-19), and how Governor Greg Abbott was blocking the release of certain inmates who could not afford to pay bail.

Abbott’s order essentially banned the release of inmates who are facing charges for a violent offense or who’ve been convicted of a violent offense in the past. However, some defendants with cash may still be released.

In an executive order issued on March 29, 2020, Abbott barred violent offenders and inmates who had been previously convicted of a violent offense from getting out of local lockups unless they paid bail. If an inmate had the same criminal history but cash, they could still walk free, which raises questions for some about the constitutionality of the order.

COVID-19 & Reducing the Inmate Population

Authorities are making an effort to reduce local jail populations to control and prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Jails are high risk because so many people are in close quarters, which increases the chance of the virus spreading from person-to-person and to the thousands of people who work at the jails.

As of this writing, COVID-19 has reached the Harris and Dallas County jails, a juvenile detention center, and the Texas prisons. “Abbott’s order came the same day that Harris County announced the first confirmed case in its jail, where some 30 inmates are showing symptoms of the virus and as many as 500 others may have been exposed, the Texas Tribune reported.

At a news conference on Sunday, Abbott said that releasing dangerous criminals would make the state even less safe and it would slow their ability to respond to the disaster caused by the virus. Abbott said they want to reduce and contain the coronavirus in jails and prisons for the benefit of the inmates as well as the law enforcement officers who work at the facilities.

“Abbott’s order applies to inmates who have been accused or convicted of ‘a crime that involves physical violence or the threat of physical violence,’ which defense attorneys called a vague and subjective standard. Abbott’s directive also appears to apply to inmates with any history of violent offenses — meaning a person arrested on a nonviolent drug charge last week could be held if he had a decades-old conviction of a violent offense,” according to the Texas Tribune.

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