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Poor inmates sue Dallas County over bail system following Harris County ruling

The bail reform fight has made its way to Dallas County, where poor inmates sued officials over the claim that the county's money bail system discriminates against them.

North Tower Detention Facility in Dallas on Jan. 20, 2017.

On the heels of a federal ruling slamming Harris County for its bail practices, civil rights lawyers have now set their sights on a county with a similar system: Dallas.

Six indigent misdemeanor and felony defendants arrested this week and held in the Dallas County Jail filed suit against the county on Sunday night, claiming the bail system unconstitutionally discriminates against them by holding them in jail for days or weeks while letting similar defendants with cash walk free. One plaintiff, Shannon Daves, is a 47-year-old homeless and jobless transgender woman arrested on a misdemeanor theft charge. She has been kept in solitary confinement in the men's unit since Wednesday under a $500 misdemeanor bond she can't afford, the lawsuit claims.

“This system is really devastating for the people who can’t afford to purchase their freedom,” said Trisha Trigilio, a senior attorney at the ACLU of Texas, one of the legal groups representing the inmates. Lawyers with the Civil Rights Corps and the Texas Fair Defense Project are also leading the lawsuits in both Dallas and Harris counties.

Bail is a legal mechanism to ensure defendants show up to court hearings. Most jurisdictions in Texas and the country rely primarily on a money bail system, where defendants can pay a bond amount set by a fixed schedule for their release. If they can't pay, they're often stuck in jail. Recently, civil rights lawyers and judges have targeted money bail systems nationwide, claiming they violate poor defendants' constitutional rights to equal protection and due process. Harris County officials and the bail bonds industry have knocked this argument, saying recent lawsuits have sought "affordable bail," prioritizing a defendant's ability to pay a bail bond over public safety and the likelihood of skipped court dates.

In Dallas County, the plaintiffs state that judicial magistrates set money bail based on the alleged crime and prior convictions without considering an inmate’s ability to pay or determining if non-monetary conditions of release, like an ankle monitor or cab fare voucher, could ensure the defendant shows up to court. Texas law requires officials to consider financial ability when setting bail. 

Instead, poor inmates who have yet to be convicted usually stay in jail because they can't afford the bail, sometimes causing them to lose their jobs or housing, the lawsuit said. The lawsuit also argues that the threat of lengthy jail stays while awaiting trial encourages defendants to plead guilty.

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins said Sunday that he wouldn’t comment on a pending lawsuit, but said the county is working to improve the system.

“I support bail reform because some low-risk suspects that don’t need to be there are held in Texas jails at taxpayer expense simply because they can’t afford to bond out,” he said.

Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price also pointed to the county’s efforts to reform its bail system, touting a decrease in the county jail population. As of December, there were about 5,000 inmates in the jail, which has a capacity for about 8,700, according to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.

The Dallas lawsuit is similar to the one in Harris County, though the Dallas case applies to misdemeanor and felony defendants while the suit in Harris only focuses on misdemeanors. There, a federal judge ruled last year that the practices in the state's most populous county were unconstitutional and ordered the free release of all poor misdemeanor defendants within 24 hours of arrest.

Across the nation, cities, counties and states have veered away from traditional money bail and looked to release defendants for free if they are likely to stay out of trouble and show up to court. The Texas Legislature last year tried unsuccessfully to pass a bill to rely more on these risk assessments than fixed bail schedules.

Harris County implemented a risk-based system after the lawsuit over its bail practices began, but it was not enough for the judge. U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal said in a preliminary injunction that “wealth-based disparities” would continue under the new system since judges don’t have to follow the risk-based recommendations of release and indigent defendants who are not deemed low-risk are still stuck with money bail.

Rosenthal’s ruling is being considered in appellate court, and the underlying case has yet to be heard.

When Harris County got dragged into the bail reform fight, Dallas County pretrial officials (and those at other counties in the state) began to look at their own system. Last year, Dallas county commissioners implemented policies to divert low-risk inmates and the mentally ill out of jail before trial, but the plaintiffs say very few people qualify for those types of release, even though one-third of the jail population has a mental illness.

Jenkins and Price both said Dallas County is working to implement a risk-assessment tool to use in its pretrial system.

"The county has been making steps," Price said, adding that the lawsuit was somewhat expected after the Harris County ruling. "We were hoping we were a lot further along in the reformation process and that the ACLU and others would see that we were making strides in that area with regards to people in custody."

Trigilio said the judges and the county officials haven’t properly acted yet.

“This is a crisis that needs to be addressed immediately, and unfortunately, it looks like a lawsuit is the only way to make that happen,” she said.

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