Faced with the looming threat of the coronavirus, Harris County, Texas, Sheriff Ed Gonzalez did something unusual for a lifelong law enforcement officer. Two weeks ago, he issued a “compassionate release” plan to complement an arrest-reduction strategy that shrank the jail population from 9,100 to 8,500 in just a few weeks.
Allowed to continue, the new plan would have removed several hundred more elderly or ill defendants from jail ― but it ran into an insurmountable hurdle.
On March 20, Judge Herb Ritchie issued a general order limiting the defendants eligible for release to those who had committed low-level, nonviolent felonies like forgery, credit card crimes and possession or delivery of marijuana. An analysis run by the sheriff’s office projected that the order, which has yet to go into effect, will limit the number of inmates released to just 36.
This isn’t an anomaly, advocates say. Across the country, despite unprecedented cooperation between other facets of the criminal justice system to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, judges are standing in the way of reducing jail populations.
“I am but one actor in a larger criminal justice system,” Gonzalez tweeted recently. “I do not hold the authority to release. We are dependent on others that do hold the authority.”
Judges’ intransigence is already having deadly consequences, advocates say. “County jails are going to be the worst cruise ships in the whole United States,” said Hannah Jane Sassaman of Movement Alliance Project, a Philadelphia-based organization pushing judges to clear jails of as many people as possible to avoid the calamity that’s befallen places like Rikers Island in New York City.
As of March 30, at least 167 inmates and 114 staff members at New York City jails had tested positive for COVID-19, the majority of them at Rikers. One 57-year-old prisoner recently told HuffPost, “I just feel like I’m sitting on...