Pandemic stalls Texas courts and fills some county jails

The pandemic has upended much of everyday life, including in the Texas criminal justice system. In order to slow the spread of Covid-19 and to avoid having judges and jurors exposed to Covid-19, most counties haven’t held any criminal jury trials since March of last year. Thousands of defendants are stuck in county jails waiting for their day in court – even as court dates keep getting pushed back.

Of course, crimes continue to be committed and police continue to arrest suspects. The result is that many Texas county jails are being pushed to maximum capacity, or beyond.

Alarm in some counties

The Texas Tribune reports that “overcrowding in Texas jails has spurred alarm in several counties.” In some jammed jails, officials are unable to safely distance inmates from one another, or from guards. It is next to impossible in overcrowded jails to quarantine new arrivals who might be carrying the virus.

Most of those in county jails fall into one of two categories: they’ve been accused of crimes by law enforcement (but are presumed innocent), or they are in jail to serve a short sentence.

The Rio Grande Valley’s Hidalgo County was often packed before the pandemic, but because of the slowdown in the court system, it has been housing some of its inmates in neighboring counties or at a federal facility nearby.

The Harris County sheriff says his jail is “bursting.” So far, six inmates and two jail workers have died of Covid-19 at the Houston jail.

Not all jails are full

However, the Texas Tribune also reports that not all county jails are struggling with overpopulation. Overall, the statewide county jail population is “about the same as it was a year ago.”

And some urban counties, such as Dallas and Travis, had more than 1,000 open beds in their facilities in January 2021, the jail commission reported.

A Dallas County Commissioner credited bond reduction hearings, diversion and treatment programs, and the district attorney’s decision not to prosecute certain low-level crimes for the manageable jail population there.

Other counties are experimenting with bail reductions as a means of controlling crowding.