Houston Must Stop Neglecting Its Rising Jail Population

Houston Must Stop Neglecting Its Rising Jail Population

The Point

COVID-19 has spread rapidly through the Harris County Jail, increasing the risk of infection and fatality not just in the jail, but the surrounding community. Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo and Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg must immediately take steps to reduce its jail population.

The Houston Police Department, local judges, and Harris County officials need to act swiftly to address the public health crisis on their hands:

  • Chief Art Acevedo’s Police Department must stop arresting people for low-level offenses. In the midst of a deadly pandemic, Houston Police are going out of their way to charge people who are homeless with drug-related offenses. The latest numbers reveal that over half of those held in Harris County Jail because of drug charges were arrested by HPD. 
  • District Attorney Kim Ogg needs to follow the recommendations of Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez and Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal to consider releasing people who are being held pretrial because they can’t afford bail. She should also stop asking for cash bail, build a list of offenses where a person can be immediately released after arrest, and identify new and pending charges that can be dismissed without implicating public safety—like trespass, minor traffic offenses, and drug possession.  
  • Local judges need to prioritize jail cases on their dockets. Judges so far have failed to expedite the cases of nearly 7,800 people being detained pretrial—almost 88% percent of the Harris County Jail population—despite having the power to decrease bonds for pretrial detainees or order their release.
  • Harris County officials can look to local advocacy groups for guidance. Thirteen civil rights and justice organizations in Houston recently sent a letter demanding a 4,000 person reduction in the jail population and mapping out a strategy for getting there. 

Houston has long neglected the people it incarcerates, leaving them vulnerable to natural disasters and public health crises. 

  • The Houston jails and courthouses were severely damaged during Hurricane Harvey in August 2017, and it took Harris County nearly two years to repair them. Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis explained to The Appeal Live that while there was a 25% decline in new bookings shortly after Harvey, the jail population continued to grow because of the extended court closures.   
  • When COVID-19 cases began to rise in March 2020, the Harris County court system shut down again, moving to limited in-person meetings, teleconferences, and staggered schedules in mid-June. Jury trials resumed in October, but as Jay Jenkins of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition told The Appeal, the slower pace has turned “pretrial incarceration into an indefinite sentence.”
  • As Texans struggled to keep the lights on and stay warm during the February 2021 winter storm surge, the conditions in Houston jails only worsened. In their letter to Harris County officials, advocates reported that bunks were severely overcrowded, water was being sold as a commodity, and unflushable toilets were overflowing.  

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