Above: Hearings held inside the Lew Sterrett Justice Center in downtown Dallas have previously been off-limits to the public and press.
Abolishing cash bail is a key part of the movement to end mass incarceration because money still largely determines who remains in county jail, which is itself the front door to a giant carceral state (at last count, there were 2.2 million people behind bars in the United States). In Dallas, a population the size of a small city passes through the county jail each year, where about three-quarters of detainees at any given time are awaiting trial — meaning they’re legally innocent and haven’t been convicted of a crime.
Who gets to leave lockup while their case is pending, and at what cost, is first determined at bail hearings held around-the-clock inside the jail. Dallas County sheriff’s officers usher groups of two or three dozen arrestees into a colorless room with a tile floor and rows of chairs you’d find in a DMV waiting area. The hearings have long been off-limits to the public and press, but new videos obtained by the Observer show defendants standing as magistrates call their names one-by-one, reading their charges and a bail amount. Arrestees often don’t even speak.
The videos, part of a civil rights lawsuit alleging an unconstitutional cash bail system, show hearings that are often perfunctory and routinely last fewer than 15 seconds for each person. In the hearings, magistrates rarely lower the bond amount or give out personal recognizance bonds, known as personal or PR bonds, which are supposed to be options for people too poor to make bail and, in lieu of a cash payment up front, require pretrial monitoring. In one hearing, a magistrate says personal bonds are off-limits for anyone with a criminal record: “I only do PR bonds if there is nothing on the record.” In another video, she asks two defendants to stand, tells them they’re the only ones who qualified for PR bonds, and then cautions the rest of the crowd, “Nobody else did. Nobody else ask me if you do, because you don’t.”
Another magistrate, when asked by a defendant why he couldn’t lower his bond, cited bail guidelines passed by the county’s criminal court judges, saying, “We have to standardize it according to our bond schedule.” Predetermined decision-making could explain the rapid-fire nature of the hearings. In some of the videos, magistrates burn through defendants in as little as six seconds.
The groups suing to end cash bail in Dallas County, including the ACLU and Civil Rights Corps, recently submitted the videos as evidence of an impersonal, assembly-line system. They say bail settings can have enormous, lasting consequences for defendants — research shows that arrestees who can afford to leave lockup are much less likely to plead guilty and face shorter sentences than those who can’t.
Filed by several civil rights groups earlier this year, the lawsuit accuses officials of effectively jailing people for being poor by setting bail amounts they could never pay and refusing to consider other conditions of release. Forcing poor people to wait days or weeks behind bars when rich people wouldn’t have to, they argue, violates both equal protection and due process rights and feeds a system of mass incarceration. One of their plaintiffs is a transgender woman who’s homeless and spent several days in solitary confinement because she couldn’t post $500 bail on her petty theft charge.
In Harris County, footage of magistrates browbeating poor defendants bolstered support for reforms and factored in a judge’s ruling declaring the county’s bail practices unconstitutional. The videos also led to disciplinary actions against three magistrates and raised questions of whether elected Harris County judges lied during court testimony or withheld evidence in the case.
Dallas County’s bail hearings, by contrast, have been a black box. As I wrote earlier this year, the county won’t give local faith leaders and community groups access to monitor the hearings. After months of legal wrangling, a judge in the bail lawsuit this summer forced the county to turn over footage of bail hearings inside the downtown jail. Dallas County submitted videos of three days’ worth of bail hearings, some of which turned out to be worthless; according to court filings, the closed-circuit TV cameras used to film the hearings are motion-activated; they turn off mid-hearing when nobody’s moving, and didn’t capture much of what happened those three days.
Despite the hurried bail hearings, Dallas County officials insist magistrates operate with full independence and individually consider each case — and aren’t, say, following any explicit or implied wishes from elected judges who don’t want them to lower bonds or grant non-financial conditions of release for poor people. In a court filing last month, Dallas County Criminal Court No. 6 Judge Angela King said magistrates balance arrestees’ ability to pay bail with the “safety of the community.”
“Secured money bail is one of the many important tools in the judges’ toolbox,” King wrote.
The civil rights groups say the videos show that the system keeps people in jail with almost no consideration of their circumstances. In court last month, they filed several affidavits by defendants locked inside the downtown jail in early August. Many were homeless and arrested on low-level charges, like trespassing. Some said they planned to plead guilty as soon as possible because it’s the quickest way to leave jail. Most said nobody ever asked them what, if anything, they could afford to pay to get out.
One man had already been in jail two days on drug possession charges because he couldn’t post $5,000 bail. He feared he’d lose his job before family could scrounge up the money to release him.
“My family is trying to get the money to bond me out, but we have bills to pay.”