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ACLU, Judges Sue Gov. Abbott Over Order Limiting Jail Releases During COVID-19 Pandemic

Gabriel C. Pérez
Gov. Greg Abbott speaks during a news conference regarding the coronavirus at the Texas Division of Emergency Management at the State Operations Center on Feb. 27.

The ACLU has sued Gov. Greg Abbott, alleging his move to block people accused of violent crimes from receiving personal bonds is unconstitutional.

The governor's order, issued March 29, bars judges from issuing these bonds, which grant defendants conditional release at little or no cost, if a person has been accused of a violent crime. Meanwhile, defendants who can pay a cash bond could still be released.

RELATED | Gov. Abbott Limited Texas Judges' Ability To Grant Bonds. Opponents Say That's Unconstitutional

Opponents say the order could keep poor defendants in jail, while allowing defendants who can afford bond to walk free. They also say preventing the release of low-level offenders could exacerbate the spread of COVID-19 in jails.

Abbott has argued his order would keep possibly violent offenders off the streets in an effort to maintain public safety during the pandemic and that his powers under the state disaster declaration grant him that authority.

"Under this order, those unable to afford bail are required to ride out a pandemic in the dangerous setting of a jail, while wealthier people are able to buy their way out."

The order explicitly restricts Texas judges from granting personal bonds, which plaintiffs say isn't allowed under the state constitution's separation of powers. The lawsuit, filed Wednesday in state district court in Travis County, alleges the governor exceeded his authority to block those releases.

“At a time when public health experts agree that limiting the population in jails is critical to prevent outbreaks of COVID-19, this order ties local officials’ hands in trying to mitigate the impact of the pandemic for all Texans and prevent loss of life," ACLU Texas Legal Director Andre Segura said in a statement. "Under this order, those unable to afford bail are required to ride out a pandemic in the dangerous setting of a jail, while wealthier people are able to buy their way out."

The Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, the Texas chapters of the NAACP, Texas Fair Defense, the Austin criminal defense bar and all 16 misdemeanor judges in Harris County are also party to the suit.

Abbott's order came as judges in Harris County sought to release inmates accused of low-level offenses to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Last week, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo ordered the sheriff to release of hundreds of inmates from Harris County Jail, which has a capacity of roughly 8,000. 

Attorneys in Harris County also filed a request in federal court last week to stop the governor's order.

KUT reached out to Abbott's office for a comment, but has not yet heard back. 

Got a tip? Email Andrew Weber at Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.

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Andrew Weber is a general assignment reporter for KUT, focusing on criminal justice, policing, courts and homelessness in Austin and Travis County. Got a tip? You can email him at Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.
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