The population of Hays County Jail fell by almost a third last week as district courts, adult supervision and law enforcement collaborated in an inmate release initiative to protect as many people as possible from infection with the COVID-19 virus.
According to Michael Hartman, CSCD director for Hays, Comal and Caldwell counties, “85 to
90” inmates were released as of March 27. Although the jail’s capacity is 362, the Commission on Jail Standards recommends 10 percent be held empty – meaning the working capacity is 311.
The releases were accomplished within three days after all the county’s district judges signed a letter canceling most court proceedings in response to the pandemic. Earlier this month, the Texas Supreme Court mandated that justices of the peace suspend most court proceedings.
“The less time spent inside the closely-confined jail by anyone, arrestees or law enforcement employees, the less likely is the chance that any such person might contract and spread COVID-19 outside the jail,” the letter said.
“The Hays County Sheriff’s Office has implemented standardized measures regarding limitations for the entry of new arrestees who may be ill or exposed to the COVID-19 virus,” it continued, acknowledging that screenings “are not 100 percent error-proof” due to the fact some people can carry the disease without showing
The action pertains to arrestees whose cases remain pending. “The goal is to reduce the potential of COVID-19 exposure to lower-risk arrestees currently within the Hays County Jail who are likely otherwise to be released back into our community,” the judges wrote.
“If released from custody as a result of this disaster declaration, all arrestees remain subject to both conditions of release and presentation of any charge or charges by the District Attorney’s Office.”
The move came against the drumbeat of increased community support for increased cite and release programs, whereby those placed under arrest appear quickly before a judge and then are allowed to return home.
Most of the people in jails across Texas have not been convicted of any crime, but are instead awaiting a court date. In Hays County, the Mano Amiga organization has had jail reform as a primary focus.
Hays County has been engaged in the practice of outsourcing for years, and the cost to taxpayers every week runs to the tens of thousands. Cutler has said before the pandemic that even with the bond-financed expansion of the county lockup is complete, the need to outsource would likely continue.
Looking back over daily jail reports sent to local media, the average number of arrests by all law enforcement agencies within the county has also fallen. In late February there were typically more than 20 arrests in each 24- hour period. By the final week in March, they had dropped to single digits.
The letter was signed March 18 by District Judges Bruce Boyer, Jack Robison, Gary Steel, Bill Henry, and David Junkin. Cutler announced the new jail protocols on March 15.