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Pandemic causing delay in jail releases, overcrowded prisons, Texas judge and lawyer agree

They say Texas citizens are the ones paying to keep inmates behind bars longer than normal, but the trouble is twofold.

BEAUMONT, Texas — Texas jails and prisons are both overcrowded. Judges and lawyers are calling it a COVID-19 pandemic side effect.

They say Texas citizens are the ones paying to keep inmates behind bars longer than normal, but the trouble is twofold. County jails are full of defendants awaiting trial, and Texas prisons are housing people who have already been cleared for parole.

Locally and at the state level, there has been a delay in jail releases. Criminal District Judge John Stevens and a defense attorney are explaining what's causing the delays.

Stevens said the Jefferson County Jail is nearly at “max capacity.”

“We know that we have a full crowd in there, but we're working to get it back to about 50 percent capacity, where we were before COVID blew up,” Stevens said.

Stevens said the county has had to move inmates to the old county jail.

“Locally to other locations, there are other places that we can send them to house them temporarily. We don't like doing that,” Stevens said.

So, what's to blame for the full facilities? Defense Attorney Ryan Gertz said it has a lot to do with money.

“The first thing I would point out is that the bond amounts are reasonably high, so people who are accused of a crime are essentially being held in jail, not because they're a criminal, not because they've been proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt but rather because they're poor,” Gertz said.

Stevens said COVID-19 put a pause on things and backed up court dates. That has led to inmates being held longer than usual, while they wait for trial.

“We are in court every day,” Stevens said. “I was here today with one case this afternoon.  Judge West and I are the two dominant felony judges here in this county, and we are tireless in what we do-- in holding hearings, bond hearings, trials, motions to revoke probation and other pre-trial matters, every day.”

But this issue goes beyond Southeast Texas. Jefferson County Democratic Party Chair Joseph Trahan points to what's happening in the Texas prison system.

“There are, as of April, nearly 11,000 incarcerated individuals who have been granted parole, but are still sitting in a jail cell,” Trahan said.

That's all spelled out in data released by Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which was first reported by the Texas Tribune.

Roughly nine percent of the state prison population could be out on parole. Instead, Trahan says we're paying to keep them behind bars.

“The long periods of time that people are waiting in a jail cell, because it impacts our bottom dollar, it impacts your tax dollars every single day that individuals incarcerated,” Trahan said.

Gertz said it's time to stop stripping inmates from their basic human rights.

“We ought to be treated the same,” Gertz said. “It ought to be a lot better than $500,000 bonds and junky bologna sandwiches and moldy bread, and spoiled milk, and on all the ways that they are mistreated. It's absurd.”

Stevens said they are not only working to release inmates, but they're providing rehabilitation resources to help inmates get back on their feet again.

12News also reached out to Sheriff Zena Stephens to talk about this issue, but she has yet to respond.

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