In a press release on Thursday, March 19, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Texas and a coalition of civil rights leaders sent almost 500 letters to criminal justice officials urging them to take public health experts’ advice and release individuals who are at high risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19 from county jails. Specifically, the ACLU said, the focus is placed on communities in jails with populations identified by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention as vulnerable, as well as people currently in pretrial detention.

“More than 60,000 people will sleep in jail cells in Texas tonight. Many of them have not been found guilty and are only there because they can’t pay cash bail,” said Sarah Labowitz, policy director for the ACLU of Texas. “Health experts agree that reducing incarcerated populations and protecting vulnerable groups is part of a smart response to the COVID-19 pandemic. We’re calling on criminal justice officials to do their part to prevent a public health crisis in jails and prisons.”

Wharton County District Attorney Dawn Allison responded to the Wharton Journal-Spectator’s request for a comment after receiving the ACLU email.

“I can tell you that the Wharton County Sheriff’s Office, Judge Randy Clapp, Judge Phillip Spenrath and myself met this morning,” Allison said of the Thursday, March 19 meeting. “(We reviewed) the pending charges against those currently incarcerated in the Wharton County Jail.  Please be assured that everyone involved is doing what they can to protect our community.” 

In the ACLU letter, the groups are calling on:

• Police departments and other arresting agencies to stop arresting people for minor offenses. Arresting agencies can also issue citations or desk-tickets in lieu of arrest so that people can return home, balancing the need for arrest with the overwhelming public safety concerns presented by coronavirus.

• Prosecutors to avoid cash bail requests and move for release in all but the very few cases where pretrial detention is absolutely the least restrictive means necessary to ensure public safety. They should also institute a review-and-release protocol in cases in which bail was already sought in the past 30 days and the person is currently detained.

• Judges to minimize nonessential contact within the criminal legal system, and consider granting pretrial release to detainees in all but the very few cases where detention is the least restrictive means necessary to ensure community safety.

• Sheriffs to ensure that jail facilities are as empty, safe, and clean as possible and that hygiene products are free and readily available to incarcerated people and staff. Sheriffs should recommend release for all people whose release would not create a serious threat to public safety.

• Community Supervision Officers to consider exercising their authority to limit the number of people who are incarcerated or who are forced to leave their homes. They should suspend supervision conditions that impede a person’s ability to seek medical care or support loved ones who may have COVID-19 and suspend detainees and incarceration for technical rule violations.

Wharton Police Chief Terry Lynch said police has adjusted its role from the “enforcement model to that of a guardian role.”

The Wharton PD officers have become a bit more discretionary in their enforcement actions.

“This does not mean that we are not making traffic stops or arresting individuals who commit crimes. We are assessing the violent nature of each offender in each situation to determine if the safety of the public is immediately jeopardized,” Chief Lynch said. “Currently, we have not been unduly hindered in our duties due to current events, but we certainly understand the potential health concerns within the detention or correctional facilities.”

According to the ACLU, public health experts and groups such as the National Commission on Correctional Health Care agree that incarcerated people are at high risk for infection by SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19. The ACLU said by following the recommendations outlined in the letter, civil rights leaders believe state and local officials can help stem the spread of the virus in vulnerable communities and the public at large.

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