How We're Responding to the Urgent Threat of COVID-19 in the Texas Justice System

TCJC Letters, Petition, Statements, and Toolkit

While the novel coronavirus poses an enormous threat to public health, our prisons, jails, juvenile detention centers, and other justice system facilities face a heightened risk of a devastating outbreak. Texas leaders must safely reduce the number of people incarcerated and protect those who remain locked up from the devastating impact of COVID-19.

Letter to the Governor with directives for state and county officials: As the first cases began to emerge in Texas, TCJC joined a large group of advocates and allies in sending a set of urgent directives to Governor Greg Abbott. The letter, first published on March 16th, includes recommendations for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, law enforcement, county-level officials, and the Texas Juvenile Justice Department.

Change.org petition: We accompanied our letter with a petition, which has garnered thousands of signatures from community members who agree that we must act to protect incarcerated and system-impacted Texans from the threat of COVID-19. If you haven't yet, please sign the petition today!

Response to the Governor's executive order on bail: After Governor Abbott issued an executive order blocking the release of thousands of legally innocent pretrial detainees on March 29, we released an additional statement urging the Governor to rescind the order and immediately direct county officials to reduce their jail populations as safely and as quickly as possible.

Reasonable parole- and reentry-related strategies: On April 6, TCJC joined with a group of justice advocates and published an urgent appeal to accelerate reductions in the Texas prison population. In late April, TCJC participated in a social media day of action urging Governor Abbott and the Board of Pardons and Paroles to flatten the curve by immediately releasing parole-eligible people from Texas facilities.

County-level outreach: TCJC's Jay Jenkins and Elaine Hennig authored a blog post on the need for Harris County judges to immediately reduce the jail population to prevent a widespread COVID-19 outbreak within the jail. In addition to their ongoing weekly felony bail reports, our Harris County team also created a new report to show the impact of COVID-19 on the county's justice system, including high infection rates. In Bexar County, TCJC partnered with SA Stands to create a series of reports on COVID-19 cases among incarcerated people and staff in the Bexar County Jail.

TCJC also co-hosted a webinar providing answers about COVID-19 and the youth justice system in Austin/Travis County. And our team helped organize a similar webinar in Houston/Harris County.

Separately, TCJC joined with Doctors for America and Texas Appleseed to develop a toolkit with recommendations for county stakeholders, including law enforcement, judges, prosecuting attorneys, and local executives.

Other actions and resources: TCJC's Doug Smith participated in a webinar from the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement highlighting decarceration and reentry strategies during COVID-19 and beyond. Furthermore, members of TCJC’s Statewide Leadership Council – a formerly incarcerated-led group committed to ending mass incarceration – have been advocating at the state and local level for safe reductions in incarceration and for supports for people behind bars; check out a blog post on members’ recent activities here!

Sign-On Letters and Statements We're Supporting

In addition to these efforts, TCJC has signed on to a variety of letters, platforms, and requests addressing the novel coronavirus across levels of the justice system. These include:

  • A letter from the ACLU of Texas and Texas Fair Defense Project directed to justice system practitioners.
  • A letter from juvenile justice advocates in Texas directed to Governor Abbott. [This was part of a larger effort among 35 states to demand the release of kids from state and local facilities.]
  • A letter from immigration and justice advocates directed to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.
  • A letter from Texas health care stakeholders directed to Governor Abbott.
  • A group of letters from the Texas Fair Defense Project directed to the Travis County Sheriff and the Travis County District and County Attorneys.
  • Letters from juvenile justice advocates directed to stakeholders in Travis and Bexar counties.
  • A national platform created by Color of Change.
  • A petition supporting free phone calls for people in prisons and jails, during COVID-19 and beyond.

TCJC in the News

Our work to mitigate the potential for a disastrous outbreak has been covered in the Texas Tribune, the Houston Chronicle, the Dallas Morning News, KXAN, the Texas Observer, and more. To see all of our news coverage, head over to our Media page.

Examples of Texas Counties That Are Getting It Right

In Travis County, judges increased their use of personal recognizance bonds and has lowered the county jail population by over 500 people as an outbreak grew more likely. In Harris County, the County Judge called the jail a "ticking time bomb" and ordered the Sheriff to release people charged with certain nonviolent offenses. In Collin County, local officials have implemented a cite and release policy to decrease the number of people entering the county jail. And some East Texas county jails are enacting mitigation strategies, including screening, isolation, and release.

Other Resources

The TCJC team is providing updates via our Facebook and Twitter pages as we learn more about confirmed COVID-19 cases within the justice system.

The Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association (TCDLA) has a taskforce working on COVID-19 related issues and cases, and they are providing a list of resources.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice is releasing daily updates on positive, negative, and pending tests, as well as medical isolation and medical restriction. The Texas Commission on Jail Standards is releasing updates on case counts in county jails. The Texas Juvenile Justice Department is providing updates on case counts among youth and staff here.

For the most up-to-date information, we recommend contacting your local officials.