Police have scaled back on arrests in some nonviolent misdemeanor cases in the past two months, reducing the potential for spreading COVID-19 in the county jail, but a few suspects in McLennan County have still wound up behind bars for traffic warrants or trespassing charges.
Each case varies, and officers remain able to make arrests on minor charges if they see the need. McLennan County Jail records show fewer than 10 inmates accused solely of Class C misdemeanor offenses have been booked in since March 13. Within the past week, three inmates were booked on several Class C misdemeanor charges, ranging from dog at large citations to traffic violations, records state.
“We are not telling officers they can’t arrest people, because they can arrest anyone they find the cause to arrest,” McLennan County Sheriff’s Office Maj. Ricky Armstrong said. “And they have arrested people on minor traffic violations in the past couple of months. There is no free pass, because police are still out there doing their jobs.
“They are also making judgement calls at this time whether they feel suspects need to go to jail at that time based on the circumstances.”
State officials issued guidelines about two months ago recommending law enforcement agencies reduce jail populations to limit the potential for COVID-19 outbreaks in the confined quarters.
Armstrong, administrator of McLennan County Jail and the Jack Harwell Detention Center, said he reviews daily arrests and has reached out to certain departments when nonviolent offenders are booked into jail. He said those agencies have explained the reasoning for misdemeanor arrests and have remained compliant with the county’s request for limiting or delaying most nonviolent misdemeanor arrests during the coronavirus outbreak.
In late March, local judges agreed to release about 80 inmates in accordance with guidance issued by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards to reduce jail populations. As with others released on bond, they will have to meet bond conditions and appear in court when required.
Police are continuing to investigate cases, even if they intend to defer arrests until jail policies are loosened. Policies have not changed in relation to felony cases or federal cases, Armstrong said.
As of Monday, McLennan County Jail housed 554 inmates, and Harwell housed 462, including 218 federal inmates.
Officials have maintained a “soft lockdown” at the neighboring facilities. They have not reported any inmates testing positive for the novel coronavirus.
“I think part of it is luck as to why we have not had anyone test positive for COVID-19 and I also think it is because we started taking extreme, proactive steps in the very beginning,” Armstrong said.
Both McLennan County jail facilities implemented screening procedures March 4, more than two weeks before the Texas Commission on Jail Standards advised local sheriffs to take steps to reduce jail populations. Armstrong said trusty work duty, inmate programs and visitation have ceased, and all new inmates are quarantined for 14 days before being turned over to general population if bonds have not been paid.
Three McLennan County inmates and 10 jailers have been tested for COVID-19 after experiencing symptoms of the disease, but none tested positive, Armstrong said.
In all of McLennan County, 94 residents have tested positive for COVID-19. No new cases were reported Monday, and four cases are considered active.
Elsewhere in the state, at least 10 other county jails have reported COVID-19 cases, with a total of 1,255 inmates in their custody and 338 jailers testing positive as of Monday, according to the state jail standards commission. A total of 5,126 inmates are being isolated because they have showed symptoms of the disease, according to the commission.
Statewide, 33 inmates are being treated offsite for their illness. Bexar County is the only county that has had a confirmed COVID-19 death in its jail, while Harris County has reported one death suspected to be a result of COVID-19.
Those numbers are in addition to cases reported in prisons in the state, and any cases that have arisen in private jails.
Dallas, Fannin, Gregg, Haskell, Montgomery, Smith, Tarrant, and Webb counties have all reported COVID-19 cases in their jails.