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Dallas Cash Bail System Leaves Poor Languishing In Jail, Lawsuit Says

"The county operates a wealth-based system of detention. Every day people are held in jail simply because they can’t afford very small amounts of money."

Jim Mahoney/MCT/NewscomJim Mahoney/MCT/NewscomShannon Daves has been held in solitary confinement at the Dallas County, Texas, jail for nearly a week because she can't afford a $500 bail.

Daves, 47, an unemployed, homeless transgender woman accused of theft, is one of hundreds of criminal defendants in Dallas County languishing behind bars every day simply because of their inability to make bail, according to three civil rights groups.

Those groups—the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Civil Rights Corps, and Texas Fair Defense Project—filed a federal class-action lawsuit late Sunday night on behalf of Daves and five other named plaintiffs challenging the constitutionality of Dallas County's bail policies. In all six of the plaintiffs' cases, their arraignments lasted less than a minute, and the judges never asked about their income or ability to pay before setting bail.

Dallas County, which includes the city of Dallas, is the latest to be hit in a wave of lawsuits around the country challenging the constitutionality cash bail policies. Similar challenges have been filed in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee. Last April, a federal judge issued a stunning ruling that found the bail practices in Harris County, Texas, were unconstitutional and ordered almost all misdemeanor defendants to be released within 24 hours.

Civil liberties groups say cash bail practices like Dallas County's keep defendants, who are presumed innocent, behind bars because of their inability to pay—essentially a debtor's prison. Sunday's lawsuit claims about 70 percent of the jail population are there because they can't afford bail. The cost to county taxpayers, the civil rights groups estimate, amounts to $225,321 per day.

Brandon Buskey, an ACLU senior staff attorney, argues that system violates the core constitutional principles of equal protection and due process.

"The current situation is that the county operates a wealth-based system of detention," he says. "Every day people are held in jail simply because they can't afford very small amounts of money. On the other hand, if you're wealthier you go free, often within a few hours."

The civil rights groups argue that even short stays in jail can have devastating consequences for defendants, especially poor ones. "Pretrial detention of presumptively innocent human beings causes people to lose their jobs and shelter, interrupts vital medication cycles, and separates parents and children," the lawsuit states. "It coerces guilty pleas and results in longer sentences."

Around one-third of inmates at the Dallas County Jail have some form of mental illness, according to the lawsuit.

Dallas County officials began working to reform their bail policies last year, after the Dallas Morning News reported on the case of a grandmother who spent two months in jail after shoplifting two school uniforms worth $105. Her bond was set at $150,000, of which $15,000 was nonrefundable.

Opposing such reform efforts is the professional bail bond industry. Industry represenativies have filed lawsuits in New Jersey and New Mexico arguing that denial of cash bail is actually a violation of defendants' constitutional rights.

"What that does, in a nutshell, is it takes something that is constitutionally protected as a liberty-preserving option and turns it into an option of last resort," former U.S. Solicitor General Paul Clement, now working for the American Bail Coalition, argued before a New Jersey judge last year.

Civil liberties groups, however, say that the bail bond industry's opposition is little more than an attempt to preserve its bottom line.

"Most people who go through the system in Dallas county or elsewhere in the country can be released without any worry and without any condition on their liberty," Buskey says. "For those who present some risk, money is not the answer. The bail bond industry's efforts to save itself by asserting that, somehow, cash bail is needed to keep people safe is just that—a self-interested and desperate attempt to keep their livelihood going."

Photo Credit: Jim Mahoney/MCT/Newscom

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  • MoreFreedom||

    Seems to me if one cannot afford a $500 bail (probably $50 to the bail bondsman), then it makes financial sense to live in jail where food, clothing, housing and medical care are provided for free. It might also be a disincentive for those able to work, to quit breaking the law.

    To be fair, it's worth asking why a grandmother who shoplifted two school uniforms (for private school I assume) would do that, and why the bail was set so high. Must have been a serial offender.

  • Tony||

    Cool ironic handle bro.

  • dave b.||

    When did the alleged libertarians here become Beauregard-grade law and order conservatives?

  • ThomasD||

    Yep, that's exactly what libertarianism means - no consequences for your particular situation.

    As if the usurious system of bail 'bonds' is more economically sound or equitable for the accused.

  • Kristi T.||

    Dallas public schools have a strict dress code, but not so strict that clothing has to be acquired from a school uniform store. Pants, skirts, capris, & shorts must be solid khaki, navy, or black. Shirts must be solid color with collar - individual schools determine which shirt colors are allowed. It's actually pretty reasonable.

  • Ben of Houston||

    You forget one thing - she has not been convicted. If she is, it will be at most a fine. Maybe a few days in prison.

    Second, $500 is a lot of money to some people. At minimum wage, that's 2 weeks of work. That can easily represent six month's savings for someone trying to get by. The only thing worse than that would be to miss 2 weeks of work. Or two months. Courts take a long time to get through cases.

    Then, even if a not-guilty verdict is returned, the defendant is dumped on the street, serving months in prison for something they did not do, having lost their job due to not showing up, lost their housing due to the lack of payment, and maybe even having had all of their possessions sold by their landlord.

    Even for someone in a better situation, the bail bond system is a travesty. People end up buying third party loans at the cost of thousands because they were accused of a crime. Even if they are not guilty, that money is lost, and can significantly hamper even middle class households.

    You have to think about the impact of the systems in the worst case as well as the average.

  • Don't look at me.||

    They description of Ms Daves' sexuality added nothing to the story line. Why not mention how much she weighs or what color hair?

  • Kivlor||

    You wouldn't have known that this is just another way that the white-cis-het-patriarchy oppresses vulnerable minorities if Ciaramella hadn't told you that.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    I'll bet it does add something to the story , now what that is and whether or not it hurts or helps her story (in the eyes of the reader) can't be known.

  • Tony||

    If it had just said "woman" and you later found out it was actually "transgender woman," you'd probably bitch about that too.

  • Don't look at me.||

    Not bitching, just wondering. And how would I find out and why would I care?

  • MatthewSlyfield||

    The fact that she's transgender is probably WHY she's being held in solitary confinement.

    The jail staff probably doesn't want to deal with the issues that they think might come up from putting her in either the male or female general population.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Why is she in solitary?

  • TangoDelta||

    Really? That's terribly nice and softball of you. I'll put $100 on she's transgender and the machine doesn't know what else to do. It's the old, "we can't put 'her' here and we can't put 'him' there so, fuck it, solitary it is."

  • MatthewSlyfield||

    Bingo.

  • Illocust||

    Yep, cause when the unenlightened prisoners decide to smash her face in, the prison would be held responsible. There simply aren't enough transgender people to have a prison population made up just for them.

  • Kivlor||

    Daves, 47, an unemployed, homeless transgender woman accused of theft, is one of hundreds of criminal defendants in Dallas County languishing behind bars every day simply because of their inability to make bail, according to three civil rights groups.

    My cis-het-white-patriarchal bias is likely showing but I would think a mentally disturbed transient woman is likely a flight risk.

  • Kivlor||

    Or transient man? I'm not sure. Is this a biological dude?

  • Tony||

    But she wouldn't be a flight risk if she had an extra $500?

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    No, but the system gets $500 which is desperately needed succor for the starving beast.

  • ||

    But she wouldn't be a flight risk if she had an extra $500?

    Presuming the Ciaramella distinguishes between theft and grand theft, it's a bit of a noodler to try and figure out why a mentally disturbed transient with $500 would steal something worth less than $500.

    It's almost like the judge, Kivlor, and myself don't want a homeless transgender woman accused of theft wandering the streets where she could conceivably thieve again.

    It's actually exceedingly absurd to lead with this example considering the plain facts of the other case delineated. Pretty much anyone of any modest means could cover a $500 bail and/or $500 theft out of the goodness of their hearts. A $150K bail for a $105 theft isn't anywhere near any sort of parity and is unreachable by even good portions of the upper-middle class. But, fuck facts and numbers, gotta generate clicks and justify feelz with a derelict tranny.

  • UVaGrad||

    It's almost like the judge, Kivlor, and myself don't want a homeless transgender woman accused of theft wandering the streets where she could conceivably thieve again.

    But according to the complaint in lawsuit, the court declined to make exactly that judgment, or to exercise any judgment at all. It didn't find as a factual matter that this person was likely to reoffend while out, was a flight risk, etc. The court simply looked at a bail schedule, set bail at $500, and had the person locked up when they couldn't pay.

  • ||

    Right, so the $500 is arguably the minimum and quite possibly commensurate with the theft. Would you feel better if the tranny were being held in lockup over $0.50? If there were $150 in $0.50 bails across the country would you donate even $5 to the cause?

    The $150K granny, OTOH, would take most of us at least a couple of years to scrounge up that amount of extra cash and even those of us who have it lying around probably wouldn't donate it to such a cause.

  • Tony||

    Uh huh. I don't think any innocent person should be put in a cage except in extreme circumstances.

  • Libertymike||

    See Tony, you can get it right.

  • ||

    See Tony, you can get it right.

    WTHF? No jail, no bond for alleged thieves? WTF?

    Do we just send 'thieving tickets' for the money they don't have to the address of their cardboard box? Wait until they've stolen enough shit to really matter and *then* get the police involved?

    I mean even in an exceedingly libertarian society, the shopkeeper gets to hold either you, the merchandise, or both until you either remunerate and/or atone for your crimes. Anything ideology that suggests that accused criminals aren't in any real way beholden to the law is exceedingly libertine.

    Also, you know better than to agree with Tony. Innocent people shouldn't be put in cages except in extreme circumstances and thinking like a Nazi is an extreme circumstance.

  • Fuck you, Shikha (Nunya)||

    You captured my thoughts. Without additional detail I'm reluctant to get up in arms over the first case. $50 to the bail bondsman doesn't seem an overly undue burden, especially without knowing the value of the theft. The transgender portion seems stick into the story for shock value. The second case, however, seems so crazy as to be unbelievable. I would hope the $150k was a clerical error, but it doesn't appear so. In that case, fire up the wood chippers.

  • Hank Phillips||

    Much more pressing is the question of whether a subsidized prohibitionist looter kleptocracy bristling with service pistols is an attractive (repellent?) nuisance.

  • ThomasD||

    Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.

  • ThomasD||

    But hey, by all means, let's let him make a deal with the devil - aka the bail bondsman, so when he bolts some doofus bounty hunter can really show him what rights abuses are...

  • Hank Phillips||

    Something of the sort occurred in Chicago when Herbert Hoover was prez. Judge Lyle, failed mayoral candidate, had beer dealers arrested and ordered high bail for cash or unencumbered property. Then informed the tax agents of any who paid with too much alacrity. Back then the government had these idiotic sumptuary laws telling folks what they could eat, drink, smoke... and a host of asset-forfeiture practices whereby blackmailers with badges simply robbed people. Good thing we've come a long way, baby...

  • John's broseph||

    While the bail system itself is not perfect it's certainly the best solution to ensure that someone shows back up at court.

    The issue is reason writers and even most commenters are the type that would show up to court with or without having to post bond. It's stupid to not show up to court and allow the situation to snowball with a warrant being issued.

    As hard as it is to understand, 50% of people have an IQ below 100. The bail system exists for someone who WOULD blow off a court hearing, it makes them have skin in the game for participating in the process. On top of that it offloads part of the cost of bail onto a private individual (the bail bondsmen) who voluntarily assesses and accepts the risk. It's as close to a market as you'll see in government.

  • IceTrey||

    IQ is a median not an average.

  • Mark22||

    "The county operates a wealth-based system of detention. Every day people are held in jail simply because they can't afford very small amounts of money."

    Oh, I can top that! Every day people die simply because they can't afford very small amounts of money.

    You are more than welcome to do what other responsible people do and alleviate any such (perceived) problems through donating "very small amounts of money".

  • EV2||

    Ok, my understanding is that a cash bond is just that, requires cash. With A surety bond the defendant or someone on their behalf, like a bondsman, places surety with the court. The bondsman may charge a fee, usually 10 per cent. If a defendant has posted a cash bond and is found not guilty, he may have the money returned. If he has a bondsman place a surety bond he does not get the money paid to the bondsman back, that is what the bondsman keeps for his efforts.

    It makes no sense for bondsmen to want to keep a cash bond system. No work. Cash bonds would benefit the local government in that if the defendant does not appear in court, the bond is forfeited .

    If bond is set from a list of amounts for the offenses, the defendants are being denied constitutional rights.

  • Radioactive||

    ...and where else would you have them languish?

  • Paul E||

    "judges never asked about their income or ability to pay before setting bail." - As if that is a requirement? If you murder someone but you're poor should you get a reduced bail sentence? Seriously, if you don't want to deal with bail don't commit crimes then there is no problem.

  • Billy Bones||

    "Seriously, if you don't want to deal with bail don't commit crimes then there is no problem."

    Exactly, because an innocent person has never been arrested for a crime they didn't commit.

  • Longtobefree||

    "Around one-third of inmates at the Dallas County Jail have some form of mental illness, according to the lawsuit."

    And we absolutely know crazy people always show up for court sessions.
    And we absolutely know crazy people should be loose on the streets to commit crimes.
    Speaking of crazy, how about we commit the crazy people to treatment centers where they don't commit crimes?

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