HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- As fear of COVID-19 spreads across our area, the Harris County jail has hundreds of fewer inmates than just weeks ago. The Harris County Sheriff's Office tells us Thursday's population is roughly 8,500, compared to 9,100 just a few weeks ago.
It is evidence of a coordinated law enforcement effort to arrest fewer people. So far it is working. Typically, HCSO says it books 300 to 350 new inmates every day. Monday, 217 new inmates came in. Tuesday, they saw 194; Wednesday, the jail booked 185 new inmates.
The population could get even lower as the HCSO looks to increase "compassionate" releases.
All of it designed to keep COVID-19 from getting inside the Harris County Jail where it could spread quickly. Outside the jail Thursday, Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez told ABC13, "We're trying to manage the potential impacts of what an outbreak could do not only inside the jail, but the impacts it could have on our public health system."
Gonzalez noted hundreds of inmates and detention officers come and go from the jail every day. Any one of them could bring the virus home to spread in the community or bring the virus in to spread inside the jail. An outbreak Gonzalez warns could overwhelm the public health system which "would not realistically be able to sustain a large outbreak of any kind inside the jail, coupled with the needs of a community need that's going to be growing. There's simply not the ICU capacity."
To manage the potential crisis, Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said officers have been told to consider their arrests saying, "We've been thoughtful about who we arrest. That decision is based on a threat to public safety."
According to the Harris County District Attorney's Office there is no plan to avoid arresting violent criminals. The District Attorney has asked law enforcement agencies to continue arresting all felons and violent misdemeanors. Those misdemeanors would include crimes such as family or domestic violence, DWI, evading arrest, making a terroristic threat and repeat burglary of a motor vehicle.
Suspects accused of low-level crimes like criminal mischief, trespassing, petty theft and low-level drug crime are expected to be arrested at a later date.
"We've never had a situation like this before," Harris County Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman told ABC13. "We would rather have our people available versus being tied up on an arrest that we could probably make later and deal with down the road."
Herman also noted criminals have fewer targets for low level crimes with so many businesses closed and most people home.
On top of the lower booking numbers, Sheriff Gonzalez has asked his team to work with judges to identify inmates who could be released.
"It's not any type of mass release, there's a vetting going on," Sheriff Gonzalez explained.
On Twitter, Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo warned, "we need to draw the line on violent suspects being released under the guide of public health."
Houston Police Officer's Union President Joe Gamaldi noted shootings that occurred in Houston Wednesday and tweeted, "Criminals don't take a break (because) of coronavirus."
Gonzalez said violent offenders would not qualify for this program saying, "We're looking at non-violent offenders that may be senior in age and also frail in their health."
HCSO said it could be hundreds of releases per day for a short time. His office says there are about 550 inmates over 56 years old - which is considered elderly in jail settings.
To deal with rumors of a mass release, Gonzalez released this Twitter thread Thursday afternoon: