Civil rights groups have filed a suit against Dallas County, Texas, over allegations that officials are running an unconstitutional judicial system that forces defendants, including a transgender woman who has struggled with homelessness and unemployment, to spend days or weeks behind bars before trial simply because they can’t afford to pay bail.
That system has allegedly had direct consequences for plaintiff Shannon Daves, a 47-year-old who like many defendants was arrested on low-level charges. After being booked for misdemeanor theft earlier this month, Daves was unable to post $500 bail. As a result, she was indefinitely detained in solitary confinement, due to the county’s policy on transgender inmates, while she awaited trial. Daves says she was confined to her cell for 24 hours a day.
“I never know what time of day it is or when mealtime will be,” she wrote in an affidavit filed in the case. “I feel that because I am transgender they have allowed me to fall through the cracks.”
The federal class action lawsuit, filed this week, details a callous pretrial process in which Dallas County judges file rapidly through arrestees, assigning predetermined bail amounts based solely on the type of charge. As in many jurisdictions in Texas and around the nation, when judges assign bail they don’t ask whether individuals can afford to pay the money. They also don’t consider other non-monetary conditions that might otherwise allow poorer defendants to be released while awaiting trial. This process leaves many people left to languish in jail, where they may end up losing jobs or shelter, getting stripped of access to public assistance or other support systems, or being separated from their families. Although these defendants are still legally presumed innocent under the law, they are effectively punished long before any determination of guilt.
These practices contribute substantially to the number of people incarcerated in the U.S. At any time, there are nearly 450,000 people who have not been convicted of a crime in jails across the country, with many facing only low-level charges. They account for nearly two-thirds of the jail population, and one-fifth of all people behind bars. Jailing these people costs U.S. taxpayers approximately $38 million each day, or $14 billion annually, according to a Pretrial Justice Institute report published last year.
“What people are fighting against all across the country is the dehumanization of the folks who are processed through the criminal legal system.”
This “two-tiered system of justice” in Dallas County disproportionately affects people of color and the poor and violates the due process and equal protection clauses of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, claims the lawsuit, filed by Civil Rights Corps, the Texas Fair Defense Project and the American Civil Liberties Union. The plaintiffs, six indigent misdemeanor and felony defendants arrested in Dallas this month, are seeking injunctive relief to halt the county’s judicial system. The suit names as defendants Dallas County and the county’s sheriff, as well as the felony and misdemeanor court magistrate judges who currently assign bail to defendants.
The Dallas County suit is the latest to challenge the use of money bail in jurisdictions around the country. Civil rights groups claim such “wealth-based” detention practices provide no public safety benefit and come at a high cost to taxpayers, all while forcing many poorer defendants to plead guilty just to get out of jail.
For defendants with money, this money bail system might look less controversial. They put up the cash and get out of jail, regardless of whether they might be considered a threat to the community or a flight risk. If they return for future trial dates, they reclaim that bail money.
But people like Daves fare much worse. She was booked into jail on a misdemeanor theft charge on Jan. 17. Hours later, she went before a judge with about 10 other defendants. Hearings in Dallas County can include more than 20 people. The sessions are not recorded, and there are no defense attorneys, prosecutors or members of the public present, according to the lawsuit.
“During these hearings, each individual is addressed for about 40 seconds or maybe a minute,” Civil Rights Corps attorney Elizabeth Rossi told HuffPost. “The magistrate judge informs the person of the charge against them but not the factual allegations underlying the charge.”
A judge ultimately assigned Daves $500 bail, the generic amount under Dallas County’s schedule. But she didn’t have that kind of money, so she was sent back to jail, where she was set to remain until her trial date.
Daves was finally released from jail on Monday along with two other plaintiffs in the lawsuit, as part of a broader effort by Faith in Texas and the Texas Organizing Project, a pair of civil justice organizations, to put up the money to bail out indigent defendants.
Bail reform advocates have been campaigning to replace this system with one that bases release decisions on individualized assessments that measure a defendant’s flight risk and potential threat to community safety. In places like New Jersey and Washington, D.C., pretrial services agencies now conduct these evaluations and provide recommendations to judicial officers. Under this system, many low-level defendants are released without payment, simply on the promise that they’ll return for future court dates. Others are subjected to some level of monitoring by the pretrial services agency or held without the option of bail.
Although Dallas’ use of money bail is in some way unremarkable, it also employs some particularly egregious practices. After bail hearings, deputies have a unusually direct way of extracting cash from defendants who can afford bail.
“They take those folks who have enough money in a bank account to an ATM that’s inside the jail in the booking area, so that person can take that money out and pay cash for that release,” said Rossi. “Everyone else is housed in jail cells and will stay in jail ― if you’re charged with a misdemeanor, for a minimum for four to ten days before going to court, and for felony arrestees, a minimum of two weeks before being taken to court.”
This practice “highlights just how shameless Dallas County is about its money-based pretrial decision making process,” Rossi added.
The lawsuit also claims that deputies often tell arrestees that if they aren’t silent during bail hearings, judges may arbitrarily increase the amount required for release. A judge in Harris County, Texas, came under fire for exactly this behavior in 2016, when he was recorded doubling a defendant’s bail from $1,000 to $2,000 after she responded to a “yes or no” question by saying “yeah” instead of “yes.” The woman had been arrested for misdemeanor marijuana possession.
Civil Rights Corps and other groups are also suing Harris County over its bail system, though unlike their Dallas County suit, that challenge wasn’t extended to felony defendants. A federal judge in that case has issued a preliminary injunction banning the county from holding misdemeanor defendants for more than 24 hours if they say they can’t afford bail. A final ruling is still forthcoming.
Despite the Dallas County lawsuit, officials there have already stated an interest in implementing reform and moving away from their reliance on money bail. That gives people like Rossi hope that they’ll be able to find common ground going forward.
“What people are fighting against all across the country is the dehumanization of the folks who are processed through the criminal legal system,” she said. “One of the key reasons that this system has developed is that the folks running it have stopped seeing the human beings that pass through it as people and have started seeing them as just cases to be processed.”
Read the entire lawsuit below: