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Federal judge rejects petition to release non-violent offenders from Harris County Jail

Local leaders had wanted to release those offenders to help curb the spread of the coronavirus behind bars.

HOUSTON — A federal judge has rejected an emergency petition that would have released of inmates from the Harris County Jail, dealing a blow to local leaders who planned to release non-violent offenders to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus.

In her ruling, Judge Lee Rosenthal said, “There is no good, clearly safe, constitutionally and jurisdictionally right solution to many of the short-term problems and disagreements the pandemic has made so acute.”

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo called the jail a “ticking time bomb” for the coronavirus and issued an order that Sheriff Ed Gonzalez release inmates who hadn’t been convicted or is currently accused of a crime that involved physical violence, wasn’t subject to a protective order, or who hadn’t been charged with more than three or more DWIs or burglary.

“New cases will spread like wildfire if we don’t take quick action,” Hidalgo said March 31.

“Opportunities do exist for compassionate release of incarcerated individuals,” Gonzalez said in a tweet on March 25. “Jail health is community health and we must prevent an outbreak inside that could overwhelm our hospital system outside.”

The county had released 12 inmates on April 3 before a court ordered Gonzalez to stop the release. Rosenthal’s ruling is the latest saga of a back-and-forth between local and state leaders fighting over the release.

Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, was one of nine state legislators who called to halt the release. In a statement Wednesday, Bettencourt called Rosenthal’s ruling “a victory for citizens.”

As of Wednesday evening, 68 inmates in the Harris County Jail have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the sheriff's office. Another 47 are in quarantine with symptoms.

Of the 100 Harris County Sheriff's employees who have tested positive, 85 work in the jail.

There are over 7,400 inmates currently housed in the jail.

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