When the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office released nearly 400 low-level inmates in late March in an effort to keep COVID-19 out of the jail, John-Michael Torres noticed.
Torres is the Rio Grande Valley communications director for La Unión del Pueblo Entero, or LUPE, a community union founded by labor activists César Chávez and Dolores Huerta.
He said LUPE has spent the last two years asking Hidalgo County Sheriff J.E. “Eddie” Guerra to keep people accused of low-level crimes — like Class C and certain Class B and A misdemeanors — out of jail to keep families together and promote public health.
“While he’s met with us about these policies, he has never committed to them. Now, he’s implementing them temporarily to stem the public health crisis,” Torres said in an email. “But if his office doesn’t formalize these policies, after the pandemic he will return to practices that unnecessarily separate families and make us a poorer, sicker region, less prepared for the next public health challenge.”
Some of the crimes Torres is referring to include driving without a license, criminal mischief, graffiti and low-level marijuana crimes.
“So, one of the things we know, is that when people end up in jail, it’s a separation from their families. It separates them from their work. They could miss days at work and end up getting fired from work,” Torres said. “The bonds they have to pay or the fines afterward are now new expenses on their families, new burdens on their families.”
This turns into a snowball effect for low-income people booked for low-level crimes that might not be of financial consequence for a middle- or upper-class individual.
“It’s not just the individual that ends up in the system, it’s the whole family,” Torres said.
A 2018 report published by LUPE details the stress incarceration has on families and particularly on children, especially in a region where families with mixed-citizenship status are prevalent and a trip to jail for an undocumented individual for a crime like driving without a license could end up in a deportation.
The separation from a spouse or a father or mother causes toxic stress that impacts every aspect of a child’s life, from school to their immune system, Torres said.
“We want people to be in a better place. We want people to be healthier,” Torres said. “We want people to be under less stress so your immune system is ready to fight an infection if you get it.”
FIRST JAIL CASE
And while Torres said it’s good that the sheriff’s office released the nearly 400 inmates in late March and that there have been significantly fewer people being booked into jail, he is troubled that law enforcement agencies in Hidalgo County are booking people for violations of the emergency order requiring people to shelter in place to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 here.
“So, it’s really ridiculous that the county is taking this approach when they have so many other options and tools available to them,” Torres said. “And two, that’s something that could actually worsen the situation when the virus is already in the county jails and it came from the outside.”
On April 10, the county announced an inmate arrested on April 2 tested positive for the virus after being arrested on various charges, including assault causing bodily injury family violence and unauthorized use of a motor vehicle.
There’s only one person on the jail log reflecting these charges, a 30-year-old male.
Court records indicate he wasn’t arrested on new charges, but rather on warrants dating back to 2016 and 2015 for two motions to revoke for assault family violence, a motion to revoke for unauthorized use of a vehicle and a bond forfeiture for failure to identify as a fugitive.
Court records confirmed the man tested positive for COVID-19 and also show all three motions to revoke have been denied or dismissed. The bond forfeiture case remains open.
The Hidalgo County District Attorney’s Office sought to revoke his probation because he was arrested in Kenedy County in 2016 for transporting an undocumented immigrant. He was found guilty of the charge and sentenced to a little more than a year in prison in 2017, federal court records indicate. The DA’s office sought a bond forfeiture because he failed to show up for a hearing in the failure to identify case.
One case against the man includes an order of release signed last Friday, but jail records indicate he remains incarcerated on the bond forfeiture case, which stems from a failure to identify a fugitive charge. He tested positive April 10.
Since April 2 — the same day this person was arrested and later tested positive and moved to a non-pressure cell where he was held in isolation — nine law enforcement agencies in Hidalgo County have booked a total of 86 people into the county jail on charges of violating the emergency order.
A number of those cases also include charges of driving under the influence or evading arrest. There are other people who have been booked solely on charges of violating the emergency order. And there are others who have been booked on some of those low-level crimes like driving without a license or criminal mischief or possession of marijuana less than two ounces in addition to violation of the emergency order — the same charges LUPE has urged the sheriff’s office to issue citations instead of making arrests.
BY THE NUMBERS
A tally of people booked into jail on accusations of violating the emergency order from April 2 to 17:
Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office: 31
Weslaco PD: 18
Palmview PD: 12
Mission PD: 11
McAllen PD: 7
Progreso PD: 4
Texas Department of Public Safety: 1
Edcouch PD: 1
Hidalgo County Constable Precinct 4: 1
(SOURCE: County booking records)