Commissioners Set the Stage for the "JWEB" Computer Outage; Release of 280+ Criminal Defendants
Updated: May 20
For those not familiar with Harris County government, "Universal Services" is the department (500+ employees) that oversees all of the county's information technology (I.T.) systems, to include "JWEB", a web-based version of the county's old J.I.M.S. criminal justice system. Throughout Harris County, JWEB is known to be an essential system that is used on a 24/7 basis by local law enforcement agencies (to file new criminal charges), the District Attorney's Office (to process new charges), the District Clerk's Office (to create/update criminal cases), and numerous other departments (e.g. Pre-trial Services, the Sheriff's Office, Courts Administration). JWEB is also interfaced to numerous partner systems, to include HPD's Tiburon RMS, AFIS, and the Harris County Jail's Offender Management System (OMS). Harris County's Universal Services Department hosts, maintains, backs-up, and supports the JWEB system.
Now that you know a little about Universal Services and the county's JWEB application, let's see where things went wrong. In September 2020, on a 3-2 party-line vote, County Judge Lina Hidalgo and the Democrats on Harris County Commissioners Court voted to fire Universal Services Executive Director Bruce High (a 14-year county employee) and eventually replaced him with a Democratic political appointee, Major General Rick Noriega. As it turns out, Major General Noriega does not have a background or education in computer systems, software applications, programming, or information technology. Mr. Noriega served as a Texas House Representative (was a politician) and retired from the Texas Army National Guard (thus the Major General title). So, to oversee all critical Harris County I.T. systems, our Democratic leadership appointed a politician with absolutely no expertise in I.T. systems. To make matters worse, in October 2020, Universal Services' new leadership promptly purged several employees who had years of county I.T. expertise, to include Universal Services Deputy Director Mike Giordanelli (he was reassigned to the Harris County Justice Administration Department). If all this sounds like the recipe for a future disaster (similar to the Harris County Elections Administrator fiasco), you would be right...
Fast forward to late last week: From at least Thursday, 3/24/22 (7 p.m.) to Saturday, 3/26/22 (9 p.m.), JWEB was non-operational. For over two full days, Universal Services was unable to correct the JWEB issue and bring the application back online. With JWEB down, over 280 criminal defendants stacked up in the Harris County Jail with no criminal charges filed. Under state law, a felony defendant must be brought before a magistrate for a Probable Cause Hearing within 48 hours of arrest or be released. With JWEB down and no charges processed, the required probable cause hearings didn't occur and a magistrate reportedly ordered the release of over 280 criminal defendants from jail, with many defendants receiving free PR bonds. Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg, among others, was outraged by the situation and advised that all the defendants released from jail would be re-arrested and properly processed through a probable cause hearing. Still, we suspect many of the defendants are long gone, not waiting around to be re-arrested.
In this day and age, we all know there will be occasions when a computer system briefly goes down. That being the case, why didn't Universal Services Executive Director Rick Noriega have hardware and/or support staff in place to quickly address the JWEB issue? Also, why were there no contingency plans in place to deal with a prolonged JWEB outage? I'm sure Mr. Noriega, with no prior Harris County I.T. experience or technical JWEB expertise, doesn't even know what he doesn't know (he may not fully understand how the various county systems are used, how they operate, interact, are interfaced, and are maintained). Frankly, the failure of Universal Services to (1) prevent the outage, (2) quickly diagnose and correct the issue, (3) anticipate this technology / software issue could occur, and (4) proactively plan for it with local stakeholders is, at its core, a fundamental failure of leadership. So, will there be any consequences and accountability for this failure? Where does "the buck stop" nowadays?
Elections have consequences, whether it be bad decisions made by Commissioners Court (e.g. appointing an unqualified Elections Administrator; appointing an unqualified Universal Services Director), reckless bail bond decisions made by our criminal court judges, or even a corruption scandal from our highest elected county official (County Judge Lina Hidalgo - Elevate Strategies LLC contract). Our local leaders must perform much better if Democrats are to govern effectively and win future elections. At this point, we would like to hear from Judge Hidalgo and our majority on Commissioners Court as to how they intend to address the recent failure at Universal Services, along with any actions they will take to ensure that this type of incident never happens again. With the on-going spike in violent crime, releasing hundreds of criminal defendants from jail due to a "computer glitch" can't be tolerated by any local official.
For some of the media reports on the Universal Services / JWEB fiasco, please see the links below:
280 defendants released from Harris Co. Jail from computer glitch | khou.com
Close to 300 defendants in Harris Co. Jail automatically released due to computer glitch (fox26houston.com)
State senator, police union share outrage after nearly 300 Harris Co. suspects freed by computer glitch (fox26houston.com)
UPDATE 4/1/22: Universal Services Executive Director Rick Noriega issued a statement today advising that they are currently investigating the cause of the JWEB outage and will take steps to prevent technical failures like this one from happening again. Based on the latest information from Universal Services, JWEB crashed during a "planned network hardware change" to upgrade the system. Well, they obviously botched that upgrade, and then Universal Services staff were unable, for over two days, to identify, diagnose, and correct their own error(s). Not very reassuring, guys.
For more information, please see the media links below:
Investigation underway into outage that allowed more than 100 inmates to be released from Harris County jail - ABC13 Houston
County officials pointing fingers as computer glitch led to almost 300 defendants being released (fox26houston.com)
UPDATE 4/5/22: According to local officials, this was actually the FIFTH time the county's JWEB system has crashed since last August and, reportedly, the system is still not completely fixed - see media reports below. Frankly, that revelation sounds like a pattern of incompetence and directly undercuts the assurances made by Mr. Noriega. How many times does a critical Harris County computer system need to crash before there is some accountability? More than five, I guess...
Nearly 300 Texas defendants were released because of a computer glitch : NPR
Computer glitch in Harris Co. prompting release of almost 300 defendants still not fixed (fox26houston.com)
UPDATE 4/6/22: Yesterday, during a Harris County Commissioners Court meeting, most county officials clearly blamed the JWEB outage fiasco on an incompetent, dysfunctional Universal Services Department. According to the Houston Chronicle, "In a seven-page letter sent Monday and in two hours of discussion Tuesday morning in front of Commissioners Court, the officials excoriated Rick Noriega, chief information officer for Harris County Universal Services, for what they said was an inexcusable outage that brought jail bookings and the filing of charges to a halt. The letter was signed by Burgess, Ogg, Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, District Court Administrator Richard Woods and Ed Wells, court administrator of the county’s criminal courts. It was a rare case of five department heads — including three elected Democrats — raising concerns about another county department." That letter also stated, “A pattern of uncooperative, silo-like business decisions exhibited by (Universal Services), in tandem with ongoing recovery work resulting from the March 24 outage, leave justice community stakeholders skeptical of our collective reliance on HCUS for ensuring the availability of systems we and the citizens of Harris County depend on." The letter stopped short of calling for Mr. Noriega to either resign or be fired.
During the meeting, Mr. Noriega acknowledged that, nine days after the outage, his team still has no idea as to the "root cause" of the JWEB system failure, but that they are investigating. Commissioners Court directed Universal Services to work with all applicable county stakeholders and then come back to Commissioners Court, within 30 days, to provide more information on the outage and their recommendations, to include a back-up contingency plan to deal with future prolonged outages.
In our opinion, our Democrats on Commissioners Court are, for now, giving their unqualified appointee, Mr. Noriega, and Universal Services a pass on the JWEB fiasco. With five county department heads, including three elected Democrats, questioning Mr. Noriega's leadership, we strongly believe Commissioners Court needs to acknowledge their appointment error and replace Mr. Noriega with a qualified professional. If not, our Democrats on Commissioners Court will truly own the next county computer outage and, given the dysfunctional situation over at Universal Services, there definitely will be another outage - it's only a matter of time...
For more information, please see the Houston Chronicle link below:
Harris County blames IT team for mistaken release of jail inmates (houstonchronicle.com)
UPDATE 4/8/22: During the 4/5/22 Commissioners Court meeting, Mr. Noriega claimed that the Universal Services JWEB team had only lost one or two members under his leadership. Well, that was reportedly a lie. According to a Fox26 report, the actual number is at least 23, including two database administrators and numerous programmers, quality control people, and business analysts. It's no wonder the county's JWEB computer system continues to crash. If County Judge Hidalgo and the Democrats on Commissioners Court allow one of their hand-picked, appointed Department heads to blatantly lie to them (and the public) with no repercussions, then it will be up to the Harris County voters in November to hold THEM personally accountable. Frankly, Democratic leaders appointing unqualified, incompetent staff, with no accountability or corrective actions, is not much of a platform to run on...
For this story, please click on the link below:
Man in charge of Harris Co. computer system that crashed under fire for lying to commissioners (fox26houston.com)
UPDATE 5/20/23: Well, this dumpster fire finally blew up, just in an unexpected way. According to media reports, a Harris County employee accused Mr. Noriega of sexual harassment in December 2022. A county investigation into that complaint reportedly found sufficient evidence to support the allegation, so Mr. Noriega was instructed to take a sexual harassment training course (big whoop). Had Mr. Noriega taken the course, I guess that would have been the end of this matter (wow). As it turns out, Mr. Noriega reportedly failed to take the class, so the Harris County Administrator finally decided to fire Mr. Noriega. County Judge Lina Hidalgo, who helped hire Mr. Noriega, said she supported the decision to fire Mr. Noriega. In her comments to the media, Judge Hidalgo said, “There is no tolerance for harassment, there is no tolerance for insubordination when it comes to harassment.” That's a strong statement, until you consider the fact that Mr. Noriega was not fired for sexually harassing an employee, but for failing to take a class. Geez. Anyway, we sincerely hope our Commissioners Court appoints a qualified person to lead Universal Services this time. The last thing we need is another appointment based on politics instead of qualifications.
In her comments to the media, Judge Hidalgo also claimed that she was once groped while at Commissioners Court, but didn't report it. If that's true, it's never too late, Lina.
For more information on this story, please click on the media link below:
Harris County fires IT director after failing to complete sexual harassment training, now he says he’s planning to sue (click2houston.com)
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