Politics

Dan Patrick tasks lawmakers with investigating release of 300 people from Harris County Jail

County law enforcement officials have blamed the mass release on a network outage.

Lucio Vasquez / Houston Public Media
People detained inside the Harris County Jail, on July 25, 2019.

Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has asked a state Senate committee to investigate what caused the release of 300 people from Harris County Jail last month.

Patrick has charged the Senate Criminal Justice Committee with examining “the recent Harris County release from custody of hundreds of criminal defendants onto the streets without bond or review by a magistrate,” looking into what caused the mass release, and determining whether similar issues have cropped up in other Texas jurisdictions.

The charge, released Monday, also asks the committee to “(m)ake recommendations to ensure criminal defendants are timely brought before a magistrate for probable cause hearings and bond hearings, and that appropriate bond is set.”

In a statement released Friday, Patrick roundly criticized Harris County government.

"(R)esponsibility for this level of dysfunction rests squarely on the shoulders of the Harris County Commissioner Court,” he said. “These are the people who need to be resigning in shame, embarrassment, and dishonor.”

According to an email sent to Harris County judges last week, a network outage caused a county computer system to go down for more than 48 hours. Among other things, that system is used to support case filings and detainee bookings. The outage prevented people from appearing in front of a judge within a statutory timeframe.

Harris County Universal Services, which is charged with maintaining the system, has not returned requests for comment. It is not clear what exactly caused the outage, though county officials say it happened during system maintenance.

County representatives say all sensitive data was protected during the outage.

According to state law, people charged with misdemeanors must be brought before a judge within 24 hours to determine whether they are being detained with probable cause. For people charged with felonies, that’s increased to 48 hours. But the system failure caused hundreds of people to miss those deadlines, leading a Harris County magistrate judge to order the release many of those people.

LM Otero / AP Photo
Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick speaks during opening general session of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) Friday, July 9, 2021, in Dallas. Patrick is asking state lawmakers to investigate why about 300 people were released from the Harris County Jail in March of 2022.

The Harris County Sheriff’s Office, which uses the system to process people in and out of the Joint Processing Center in downtown Houston, confirmed the March 24 outage. While functions the sheriff’s needed came back online less than a day later, other systems — including those used by the the Harris County District Attorney’s Office — were left offline until Sunday, according to Senior Deputy Thomas M. Gilliland.

“Unfortunately, we were not pre-warned about any work being done to the system, which caused the outage,” Gilliland said. “Harris County Universal Services was unable to provide a timely fix.”

Patrick’s move to review the releases came as part of his overall 2022 interim legislative charges released Monday. The charges task 13 Senate committees with weighing issues of potential priority in the next legislative session, set for next year.

The lieutenant governor compared the mistake to massive delays on election night followed by the revelation that 10,000 Harris County ballots went uncounted in unofficial primary election results. The county elections administrator, Isabel Longoria, has since announced her resignation.

Patrick also referenced recently unsealed warrants against senior members of Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s office, which appear to show them coordinating with a vendor over an $11 million COVID-19 vaccine outreach contract.

“This is just the latest example of dysfunction and incompetence from Harris County leadership,” Patrick said.

Patrick’s office did not respond to requests for comment on specific measures he hoped lawmakers would take in the next legislative session, or what he thought the commissioners could do to prevent such an outage in the future.

In a statement, Hidalgo’s office said the county judge was still seeking answers about the incident.

"The Harris County administrator and Universal Services department are working with affected stakeholders to conduct a full root cause analysis into what led to the issue and what needs to be done to prevent this from happening again, including developing contingencies and possibly replacing the software,” the statement from her office said. “Judge Hidalgo will continue to ask questions about this incident until it is resolved both in the short and long term.”

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