Following suit with jails across the country, Harris County is taking steps to release a large number of non-violent offenders due to the risk COVID-19 spreading in the jail. Not all non-violent offenders will be released, including some individuals convicted of driving while intoxicated.
On March 31, 2020, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo announced that approximately 1,000 inmates will be released from the Harris County Jail. According to Hidalgo, this drastic action is needed to ensure social distancing within the facility. Due to crowded conditions, Hidalgo claimed that the jail was a “ticking time bomb” for a coronavirus outbreak.
The process was thrown into confusion on Friday, April 3rd, when a judge ordered a halt to the releases. It remains to be seen if further releases will continue.
Cases of Coronavirus in the Jail
This action transpired after a Harris County inmate tested positive for COVID-19 in March. The inmate, along with two dozen others who showed symptoms, was quarantined within the jail. An additional 1,000 inmates that show no symptoms but have had contact with someone who has have also been quarantined. In total, there are 8,000 inmates in the Harris County Jail.
Unsurprisingly, these releases have led to controversy. Police Chief Art Acevedo claimed he was not notified of the plan prior to the public announcement, and members of the state legislature have also objected. Hidalgo responded to their fears with assurances that these inmates will be monitored while they are free.
The head of the Houston Police Union echoed these concerns, also wondering aloud if testing was available for those facing imminent release. He asked union president Joe Gamaldi,
What are we doing to make sure we aren't releasing 500 people who have the virus right into the community to spread it even further?
The Impact on those Convicted of DWI
Prior to the release, Governor Greg Abbott issued an executive order preventing counties from releasing violent offenders due to the risk of coronavirus. According to Hidalgo, Harris County has complied with this order. Violent offenders are not the only ones excluded from this unconventional release. Those convicted of non-violent offenses that have prior violent convictions on their record will not be released. The same is true for anyone charged with or convicted for burglary of a habitation.
Those convicted of DWI should also not expect any relief. While first-time offenders rarely spend much in jail, repeat DWI offenders could face significant time in the county jail. According to Hidalgo, anyone serving time in the Harris County Jail for a second or subsequent DWI charge will also not be released.
The Risks Associated with Serving a DWI Sentence
The health risks resulting from exposure to COVID-19 are severe, but they are only part of the health risks that can come with spending time in a county jail. Crowded conditions routinely lead to serious illnesses throughout the jail population. This says nothing of the potential for injury that comes with time behind bars.
Avoiding these health complications is possible by prevailing at your DWI trial. DWI cases are often defensible, but your success will often depend on whether you have sought the guidance of a Board Certified expert in DWI defense law.