In an executive order on Sunday, Texas Governor, Greg Abbott barred inmates accused or previously convicted of violent crimes from being released from jails without paying bail. Those with the same criminal history or the corresponding charges can still walk free if they have access to cash, a distinction that bail reform attorneys argue makes the order unconstitutional.
This order came as advocates and local governments across the country work to minimise population in pickups, where the risks of COVID-19 is particularly high, given poor sanitary conditions and close quarters. The virus has already reached Harris County and Dallas County jails, as well as Texas prisons and a juvenile detention centre. Governor Abbott’s order came the same day that Harris County announced the first confirmed case in its jail, also where 30 inmates have been showing symptoms of the virus and 500 exposed to it.
Abbott said at a news conference Sunday that “releasing dangerous criminals makes the state even less safe ... and slows our ability to respond to the disaster caused by COVID-19.” The announcement comes as Harris County officials are working on releasing hundreds of inmates because of concerns about the virus in the county’s jail — efforts that have drawn opposition from state leaders.
Some judges across Texas were already releasing more inmates on no-cost personal bonds because of COVID-19, handing a win to bail reform advocates who fight against systems that often rely on cash for release. Release on personal bonds usually requires conditions like regular check-ins and drug testing. In some of the state’s largest counties, jail populations have dropped by hundreds in weeks.
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 defence attorneys called a vague and subjective standard. Abbott’s directive also appears to apply to inmates with any history of violent offences hence, meaning a person arrested on a nonviolent drug charge last week could be held if he had a decades-old conviction of a violent crime.
Written by Elissar Zabaneh