Civil Rights Groups are Changing Bail Practices in Texas, One City at a Time

On Thursday, a federal judge ruled against Dallas County’s strict reliance on cash bail, saying it discriminates against poor people and violates their equal protection rights.

About 70 percent of people incarcerated in the Dallas County jail are there because they can't afford bail.
About 70 percent of people incarcerated in the Dallas County jail are there because they can't afford bail. Michael Barajas

If police arrest and charge you with a misdemeanor in Dallas County, and you can’t afford bail, you’ll likely be stuck in jail somewhere between four to 10 days, until your first court hearing. If you’re charged with a felony and don’t have the money, you could be waiting two to three months in lockup until that first appearance before a judge.

On Thursday, another federal court in Texas declared that such a strict reliance on cash bail discriminates against poor people and violates their equal protection rights. U.S. District Judge David Godbey ruled that Dallas County “automatically” jails people who can’t afford amounts set by the county’s fixed bail schedule — essentially, a menu matching price-for-release with various crimes and types of arrestees. Godbey called the county’s current practices “constitutionally deficient.”

“Wealthy arrestees — regardless of the crime they are accused of — who are offered secured bail can pay the requested amount and leave. Indigent arrestees in the same position cannot,” wrote Godbey, a George W. Bush appointee.  

Ruling that the cash bail practices cause “irreparable harm,” Godbey ordered Dallas County to make changes within 30 days. Essentially, Godbey’s injunction requires judges to fully consider someone’s ability to pay bail if they’re still in jail within 48 hours of arrest. If judges set a price the arrestee can’t afford, they’ll have to provide a written explanation.

The Dallas case is one of several lawsuits civil rights groups have filed against counties around the state seeking to end what they call “wealth-based detention.” Godbey’s opinion draws from the groundbreaking case that forced bail reforms in Harris County last year, which elected judges and other officials there have spent millions of taxpayer dollars appealing. “This case shares the same roots,” the Dallas judge wrote.

The lawsuits should force counties to reform or face similar legal challenges, civil rights groups say. Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis, a former state senator, compared the Houston bail case to Brown v. Board of Education in terms of its civil rights impact.

Those seeking to end cash bail point to the enormous consequences for people who can’t afford their pretrial freedom, including that they’re more likely to plead guilty and face longer sentences than those who can pay to get out. Roughly three out of four county jail inmates in Texas are awaiting trial, meaning they haven’t been convicted of a crime. Judge Godbey’s ruling finds that in Dallas County, most misdemeanor and felony arrestees stuck in lockup until their first court hearing plead guilty because it’s the fastest way to get out.

dallas, secret bail bond, civil rights
The Dallas County Jail books about 67,000 people every year, a population roughly equal to that of the Houston suburb Missouri City.  Michael Barajas

“Pretrial detention has severe consequences beyond the deprivation of liberty,” Godbey wrote. “Some examples include: loss of employment, loss of education, loss of housing and shelter, deprivation of medical treatment, inability to care for children and dependents, and exposure to violent conditions and infectious diseases in overcrowded jails.”

He echoed the ruling in Harris County’s bail case, saying there’s “reliable, credible evidence” that cash bail fares no better than non-financial conditions of release, and that community supervision is cheaper than mass pretrial detention.

Lawyers with Civil Rights Corps, which also spearheaded the Harris County lawsuit, say they targeted Dallas because its bail practices were some of the most alarming in the state. The county didn’t even ask about arrestees’ ability to pay before churning them through secret, cattle-call bail hearings where magistrates barely let them talk.

Elizabeth Rossi, an attorney with the group, says they found poor people “lost” in the system, stuck in lockup for weeks on petty charges without a lawyer or court date. The lead plaintiff in the Dallas case, a homeless woman accused of stealing from a department store, sat in solitary confinement for days because she’s transgender and couldn’t pay $500 bail.

“What the decision shows is that the policies and practices of not just Dallas County, but counties throughout the state and country, are flagrantly illegal and run roughshod over the constitutional rights of impoverished people every single day,” she told the Observer.

Lawyers for the county, judges and other defendants in the case wouldn’t comment on the ruling.

Michael Barajas is a staff writer covering civil rights for the Observer. You can reach him on Twitter or at [email protected].

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Published at 2:32 pm CST
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