The Galveston County District Attorney’s Office and local defense attorneys are working to decrease the number of people being held in the county jail.
Prosecutors are offering bond agreements to some arrestees to allow them to leave the jail until the public health crisis caused by the coronavirus is over, according to the district attorney’s office.
The agreements order people who are released to return to the jail at a date to be determined after the crisis has passed, officials said.
“Once this is over, we’ll ask them to turn themselves in, and their bonds will be reinstated,” said Kevin Petroff, first assistant criminal district attorney.
The focus was on releasing people arrested for minor crimes and who did not have long criminal histories, Galveston County Criminal District Attorney Jack Roady said.
“These are all defendants who have been carefully screened,” Roady said. “They are low-level offenders and non-violent offenders. We’ve looked at their criminal histories as well. Under this set of extraordinary circumstances, we think it’s in the interest of justice to let them out on personal bond.”
The district attorney’s office had released about 20 people under the plan as of Friday morning, officials said.
Prosecutors were acting reasonably in light of the public health emergency, said Mark Diaz, a defense attorney.
“Let’s face it, there’s so much uncertainty about how long it’s going to take to return to something we call normal,” Diaz said. “You could have guys and girls sitting in jail for months that perhaps shouldn’t be. I think it’s the right thing to do. It’s not normally this easy, but these are not normal circumstances.”
The bond policy is one of a handful of announcements made about the county’s criminal justice system as it adjusts to recommendations made to protect people against the coronavirus.
District Court Judge John Ellisor, the county’s administrative district court judge, Thursday announced that all nonessential proceedings, including jury trials, are canceled in Galveston through the end of April.
In situations in which a hearing is necessary, such as temporary restraining order hearings and pleas that would result in a person being released from jail, Ellisor encouraged attorneys to arrange telephone or video hearings.
Visitation at the jail also has been curtailed. As of Friday, defense attorneys were able to enter the jail’s lobby and confer with their clients using videophones, Galveston County Sheriff Henry Trochesset said. Inmates’ relatives and other visitors are not allowed into the building, Trochesset said.
People booked into jail were being screened for symptoms of the coronavirus and asked about their recent travel, Trochesset said. No jail inmates have tested positive for the coronavirus, Trochesset said.
Still, the jail has worked to increase the number of cells it has available to hold people in isolation in case an infection is detected in the jail.