Justice systems everywhere are taking measures to protect defendants, attorneys, prosecutors, judges, jail inmates and the public from spreading the COVID-19 virus.
Comal County is no different in changing the way it conducts business. This week more than three dozen defendants awaiting adjudication for non-violent offenses were released from the Comal County Jail and into pre-trial adult supervision programs.
“The goal is to reduce the potential of COVID-19 exposure to lower-risk arrestees currently within the Comal County Jail who are likely otherwise to be released back in to our community,” the five area district judges said in a statement last week.
“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.”
In the past week, fewer than two dozen were booked into the county lockup, where numbers are dropping. Four times that many were released on bond, pre-trial supervision, time served or other reasons over the past three weeks.
On Friday, Jail Administrator Maj. Bill Jennings reported 217 of the county’s 265 inmates were housed in the county’s 337-bed jail, with 24 each in Burnet and Atascosa county jails. A month ago, those numbers totaled 284 and 69 respectively.
Sheriff Mark Reynolds said the coronavirus crisis hasn’t stopped his deputies from their duties — they continue to write tickets, though not as many, and continue to jail suspected lawbreakers and others wanted on warrants. All incoming and outgoing offenders are screened for the virus, following federal, state and local public health guidelines and the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.
Reynolds said CCSO has a contingency plan to contain the virus if it spreads inside the jail.
“There is a plan in place that we would likely enact,” the sheriff said, declining to comment on details because of security reasons. “It won’t involve the new facility — hopefully this (virus crisis) will be behind us by the time we move into the new jail.”
A report prepared by the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute issued a March 24 brief outlining ways Texas county officials can reduce jail demand during the pandemic.
“For counties, the ‘hotspot’ is the county jail,” the brief stated, recommending counties could free up space between inmates by releasing those incarcerated on non-violent charges or diverting defendants to pre-trial supervision programs; issue citations to suspects accused of Class C misdemeanors and municipal offenses; and address indigent or mentally ill offenders.
Reynolds and County Judge Sherman Krause met with District Court administrative justice Bruce Boyer and district justices Jack Robison, Gary Steel and Dib Waldrip on releasing some non-violent offenders.
Boyer said most involved defendants facing drug charges, thefts and other non-violent felonies and misdemeanors.
Michael Hartman, executive director of Community Supervision and Corrections Department of the Caldwell, Comal and Hays Counties (CSCD), said his agency handles about 4,500 cases annually from all three counties. The CSCD compiled reviews of cases that judges considered for releases under pre-trial supervision.
“We do that anyway throughout the year, but these were done at a much faster pace to reduce pressure on the jails in light of the COVID-19 crisis,” Hartman said.
Boyer estimated he and the other judges reviewed 51 cases, leading to releases of 38 defendants from the main county jail and others incarcerated at outside correctional facilities. Hartman said Caldwell County had 15 releases and Hays County around 40, all under pre-trial supervision.
Hartman said the defendants must comply with the same terms and conditions that normally apply, though each varies by case. All must check in daily through phone, text or email; some will wear ankle monitors and others periodic drug testing.
“We have suspended office visits and we’re looking into implementing video conferencing throughout this process,” Hartman said. “If they violate any of the conditions or terms of the (PR) bond, we will notify the court immediately.”
Balancing prevention with constitution
Waldrip, who earlier this week was scheduled to judge the competency of a defendant for trial, deems those hearings “essential” and diverts those judged developmentally or mentally impaired or unable to assist in their defense into other facilities.
“It would get them out of the jail and into a place where they might be restored mentally,” Waldrip said. “We will be taking cases that are essential matters …. If their attorneys call us, we’ll set it up.”
Waldrip said defendants have a constitutional right to timely trials in open courtrooms. Both, at least for the time being, are on hold.
“Right now we need to accommodate social distancing, but then there’s the constitution,” he said. “I don’t know how that will work, and there may be some limitations in place on how many will be allowed in courtrooms.”
“But that balance (between virus spread and the constitution) has to be met — and right now we’ll accommodate both as best as we can.”