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On alert for COVID-19 outbreak, Travis County makes 'extraordinary effort' to thin out jail population
Betty Lewis was already nervous about the new coronavirus outbreak when she got a phone call from the Travis County jail in mid-March.
Her son, 53-year-old Bryan, was sitting in jail on a misdemeanor after being accused of threatening to beat up someone during an argument five months earlier.
Not an insurmountable situation under normal circumstances, but Lewis was terrified that her son was locked up while the contagious new coronavirus was virtually clawing at the jailhouse doors.
"People were already dying [around the world], so that was a great fear," she said. "All you know is that your family member is enclosed with this situation that we have, and that's not a good thing."
In late March, Bryan joined the growing numbers of Travis County inmates released from the jail thanks to efforts by judges and county officials to reduce the inmate population and slow spread of the disease through the jail system.
Those moves have resulted in nearly 600 inmates released since Feb. 25 in Travis County, said Kristen Dark, public information officer for the Travis County Sheriff's Office.
The jail system, composed of the Travis County Correctional Complex in Del Valle and the Travis County Jail downtown, has a capacity of 2,975, she said.
Some 26 inmates were in quarantine on Wednesday morning, many of whom are there because they refused to answer screening questions on intake, Dark said.
There were 63 newly booked inmates in single-cell isolation for 10-14 days as part of a new program begun this week to separate all new arrestees with or without symptoms to prevent new cases, she said.
There have been no confirmed COVID-19 cases in either jail, as of Wednesday morning, Dark said.
Dark said the decline in population is a result of the "extraordinary effort" by jail officials, attorneys, judges and police that includes:
- Isolating every new accused offender booked into the jails
- Daily health screenings of employees, police, vendors and inmates coming into the jails
- Virtual video courtrooms created to speed up the adjudication of some cases and avoid coronavirus-related delays
- Banning in-person visits
- Prioritizing the adjudication or bonds of cases in which inmates are still in jail
- Quarantining of inmates being watched for virus symptoms
- Lowered bonds for low-risk people accused of nonviolent crimes, both misdemeanors and low-level felonies
- Fewer arrests on the street for nonviolent crimes
- Automatic release with no bail (personal bonds) for newly arrested people who come through Central Booking on certain nonviolent crimes, instead of routing them to a jail cell to wait for trial
- Daily review of felony cases by the prosecutors to determine if any of them are a good fit for bond or plea deals.
"Everybody is doing their part to avoid having COVID-19 coming into our jail," Dark said.
Human rights is certainly part of the equation when making these moves, but even more than that is the concern that an epidemic inside the jail will translate into explosive numbers outside the jail, said Claire Carter, Bryan's attorney.
In addition to the inmates currently in the Travis County system, the jail has nearly 1,000 staffers.
"They're going home to families, or they might be going to the grocery store on the way home, filling up their cars with gas," Carter said. "All the things the public is being told to be careful of."
Bryan, whose last name is not being used over fears his housing situation could be compromised, was released after using a pilot video-court program—designed in response to the outbreak—that allowed him to enter his plea of no contest within days of his arrest, Carter said. He was sentenced to time served and allowed to go home.
In other cases, personal recognizance bonds are automatic for people arrested on nonviolent charges after Travis County judges ordered them in late March.
That order only affects people who are arrested into Central Booking, not those already moving through the legal system. The latter cases are still decided on an individual basis. People doing time for convictions are not included in early release programs.
An executive order by Gov. Greg Abbott on Sunday forbade the courts to release on personal bonds any accused offender—nonviolent or otherwise—who had been convicted in the past of a violent crime or the threat of violence.
The order, handed down in response to programs such those in Travis County, also included any inmate currently charged with similar crimes. It also stipulates that the order doesn't hinder any judge's ability to make individual decisions based on health or medical issues.
Some judges in Travis and other counties objected to the order, saying it hinders their ability to make case-by-case decisions, and vowed to continue to make those decisions regardless of Abbott's order.
Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore said in an interview Monday the order will change at least one thing: Travis County court officials will have to remove arrested people from the automatic personal bond program if there is any violence or threat of violence in their histories.
But otherwise, Moore, who said she spent hours on the phone Monday with judges and county officials discussing the order, said she doesn't anticipate the order will substantially change how Travis County is already handling accused offenders.
She also said that the jail population, at this point, is about as low as it can get, but that it's hard to say what will happen with the numbers going forward.
"We'll see how the judges step up and handle it, and if the jail dockets increase," she said. "Right now, it's too soon to tell."
Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced a record-setting second quarter during an earnings call broadcasted from the Giga Texas construction site in Southeast Travis County on Monday.
The electric carmaker reported more than $1 billion in quarterly net income and the production of more than 200,000 vehicles for the first time despite challenges such as a global semiconductor shortage.
"It … seems that public sentiment towards electric vehicles is at an inflection point, and at this point, I think, almost everyone agrees electric vehicles are the only way forward," Musk said.
Exterior shots taken just a while ago of Giga Texas (while @elonmusk is reportedly at the Gigafactory!) during today's earnings call!
Hope @peterdog15 got to catch the technoking in his video! #fastestinhistory #Tesla pic.twitter.com/WqeDlb5wU3
— Austin Tesla Club (@AustinTeslaClub) July 26, 2021
Despite rising consumer demand and adequate factory capacity, Tesla faces what Musk described as a "quite serious" global semiconductor shortage, which will determine the company's growth rate for the rest of the year.
With increased revenue and production, Tesla is investing in new factories, Chief Financial Officer Zachary Kirkhorn said. These include Giga Texas, the $1.1 billion manufacturing plant that broke ground last summer and is slated to open later this year.
The Giga Texas factory in Southeast Travis County has rapidly increased in size since ground broke last August. (Tesla)
Musk commended the construction team for "incredible progress," transforming what was basically a vacant site into "a mostly complete large factory a year later."
I was at Giga Texas yesterday. Team is making excellent progress. Building will be almost a mile long when complete.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 25, 2021
Giga Texas will produce the highly anticipated Cybertruck, along with other models, but Musk said scaling its production will be difficult, especially given the supply chain delays caused by the pandemic. "It's going to move as fast as the slowest of its up to 10,000 unique parts," he said.
In other news, Musk said Monday's earnings call would likely be his last regular appearance, only jumping on future quarterly calls when big announcements warrant it.
Tesla Solar recently made news when it announced plans to build the nation's most sustainable residential community in Southeast Austin earlier this month. The newly built homes will feature Tesla solar roof tiles and Powerwall battery storage as well as electric vehicle charging stations.
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The city of Austin released a shortlist of seven candidates for the police chief position left vacant when Brian Manley retired in March.
City Manager Spencer Cronk hopes to announce an appointment by the end of August, which will require City Council approval.
The finalists, chosen from a field of 46 applicants, include:
- APD Interim Chief Joseph Chacon, who previously served as an assistant chief in the department for almost five years
- Anne Kirkpatrick, former police chief in Oakland, California, who was fired last year after a federal monitor criticized her handling of a fatal 2018 police shooting of a homeless man
- Dallas Police Department Assistant Chief Avery L. Moore, who is a 30-year veteran of the department
- Atlanta Police Department Deputy Chief Celeste Murphy, who manages the department's community services division
- Dekalb County Police Chief Mirtha V. Ramos, who previously served as division chief in the Miami-Dade Police Department
- Wichita Police Department Chief Gordon Ramsay, who is a former president of the Minnesota Police Chief's Association as well as one of the first police chiefs of a major U.S. City to call George Floyd's death a murder, as reported by the Wichita Eagle
- Los Angeles Police Department Deputy Chief Emada E. Tingirides, who is also commanding officer of the department's newly formed Community Safety Partnership Bureau, which serves L.A.'s underserved communities
City staff will interview the finalists in the coming weeks, with several community input opportunities to come, according to a Monday press release.
The city conducted a public survey in March and hosted community input meetings in April to learn more about what residents are looking for in their next police chief, which helped shape the selection criteria for the position.
"They want to see the Chief be reform-minded and transparent and have a track record of fostering community involvement and accountability," Cronk said in the release. "The candidates selected show these characteristics in various ways."
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Days after Austin began once again recommending masks in public spaces, Austin ISD announced Monday that kindergarten through sixth-grade classes will have virtual options this fall.
The district will discuss the move in a special board meeting Monday evening starting at 5 p.m., while full details will be released Friday.
Teachers will not have to fret about the new option—no educators will have to juggle both virtual and in-person learning. Instead, certain teachers will specialize in virtual education, according to a press release.
The news comes after a recent spike in COVID cases in Travis County and across the nation. Children typically suffer fewer symptoms of COVID when contracted, but they are now catching the virus more often than their older counterparts without a vaccine available to them and as the more contagious Delta variant is quickly being spread.
While local health officials are recommending everyone wear masks, public school districts are unable to mandate masks due to an executive order issued by Gov. Greg Abbott in May.
Parents have expressed concern about classrooms with masks unenforceable and children under the age of 12 ineligible for a vaccine. Some have even said they would look for alternative schooling if AISD did not offer a virtual option for students.
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