HOUSTON - Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez is hacked off and pushing aside his regular practice of quiet diplomacy over the overcrowding crisis in the nation’s third-largest county jail.
With the pandemic still raging, the jail population has risen within just 20 beds of surpassing maximum legal capacity.
And it's only getting worse.
With a growing backlog of 40,000 criminal cases sitting unattended on local court dockets, defendants are left sitting in their Harris County cells an average of seven months before even going to trial.
"We had a little buffer by having some wiggle room to be able to quarantine new entrants into the system that were possibly asymptomatic. That's gone now. So I take the risk that every individual that's coming into the system, possibly asymptomatic or possibly infected, can't quarantine upfront now and are being allowed into general population because we don't have quarantine space. What's going to happen? Higher possibility of infection," said Gonzalez of the consequent risk of COVID-19 spread.
With no alternative public or private penitentiaries available to house overflow defendants, Gonzalez pursued the option of creating space through the only means available - a limited release of low-risk inmates.
"Some people want to politicize this and say 'Sheriff wants to release these people'. No, that's not true and I have never advocated for the release of violent individuals. That's not what I have ever said. I don't think you will ever find that. Go ahead convict, give them their day in court. Send them to prison if you want, but county jails are not meant to be long term stays," said Gonzalez.
What Sheriff Gonzalez did issue was a clear criticism of Harris County criminal court judges who have allowed the enormous case backlog to build and done little to whittle it down.
"Last year the judges were saying they didn't want to even consider seeing anybody who had, at any point, been COVID-19 positive, even if they had recovered. Well shoot, what are we going to do let them stay inside the jailhouse on a pre-trial basis forever? You know some of the judges quit working around the 17th of December. They took the Holidays off. They didn't start ramping up. Look at the docket sizes of some of the judges. They need to work. How about working on weekends? How about working nights?" asked Gonzalez.
The sheriff didn't stop there, condemning the on-going bonding out of custody dangerous, repeat, violent offenders.
"We need to fix a broken bond system because it simply isn't working. People who should be out, sometimes stay in jail and people who aren't supposed to be out are out there and continue to re-offend and they are out on multiple bonds. That's inexcusable," said Gonzalez.