Local officials have asked Gov. Greg Abbott to roll back an executive order that they say hinders their ability to prevent coronavirus transmission inside the Bexar County jail.

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, Judge Ron Rangel of the 379th Criminal District Court, District Attorney Joe Gonzales, and Sheriff Javier Salazar sent a letter to Abbott on Thursday about an executive order the governor issued in March that restricted judges from issuing personal recognizance bonds to individuals who have previously been convicted of or are being held on crimes involving physical violence or the threat of physical violence. 

Personal recognizance bonds – also referred to as personal bonds or “PR” bonds – allows low-level offenders to be released from jail without paying bail. They instead sign an agreement promising to show up for their court date.

“This executive order was issued in the early days of this crisis and there is no debate that this order was issued by you with the intent to protect the health and safety of Texans,” they wrote. “However, as this crisis has continued and as county officials have tried to develop strategies to deal with the crisis, Executive Order GA-13 has become a great impediment to local judges, law enforcement and administrators to react to the particular needs of their jurisdictions.”

As of Friday, 635 inmates at the county jail could have been released on personal recognizance bonds if the executive order were not in place, Salazar said.

Before the governor’s order prohibiting personal bond use in certain cases, county officials had been able to decrease the inmate population of the Bexar County Adult Detention Center to below 3,000. That number has risen steadily since the spring, and the sheriff’s office reported 3,747 people incarcerated on Friday.

The previous dip in jail population could be attributed to the collaborative efforts of local judges, the sheriff, and the district attorney’s office, Gonzales said.

“Since the implementation of the governor’s order, some inmates previously eligible for release on personal bonds on low-level offenses have been denied release and the jail numbers have once again escalated,” Gonzales said in a statement. “I, along with other county officials, implore Gov. Abbott to consider rescinding GA-13 so that Bexar County can once again work toward reducing the alarming number of inmates who are exposed to COVID-19.”

The number of inmates infected with the coronavirus has ebbed and flowed during the pandemic, with 83 active cases of coronavirus as of Friday, Salazar said. Of the inmates who have tested positive for the coronavirus, 64 exhibited no symptoms.

Wolff and Salazar have repeatedly cited Abbott’s executive order as a barrier to keeping the number of inmates inside the jail low, which would allow for more social distancing inside the facility. Salazar also pointed to how slowly the Texas Department of Criminal Justice has been picking up inmates ready for transfer into the state correctional system. About 400 inmates in the jail are awaiting transfer to state prison, he said.

Salazar also said the specific prohibition of personal recognizance bonds does nothing to promote public safety. He described a case in which a woman had been jailed on charges of criminal trespass. She was mentally ill, he said, and before the executive order, could have qualified for a personal bond. However, a resolved case on her record from 10 years ago over “terroristic threats” made her ineligible for a PR bond under the order, Salazar said, and she did not have enough money to pay bail.

“That’s not making the community any safer, versus somebody that may be here for an actual violent offense – family violence, assault on somebody, a road rage incident,” Salazar said. “But because he’s got $1,000 or $5,000 to pay his bail, he’s out and walking the streets. I ask you, who’s more dangerous to the community?”

Only 2.2 percent of the jail population has tested positive for the coronavirus, which Salazar continues to attribute to jail procedures such as universal mask use and frequent cleanings; common areas are sanitized three times a day with a spray-on disinfectant.

“We’re doing excellent now,” Salazar said. “But the fact [is] that we’re sitting on 600 people who should have PR bonded out. We’re sitting on another 400 that should be in prison right now – but because [the Texas Department of Corrections] is not picking them up, they’re sitting with us. That’s 1,000 people that because the state of Texas did this order and is not picking up inmates, it’s making our problem worse than what it needs to be.”

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Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang is the local government reporter at the San Antonio Report.