The day that Dallas County leaders have been dreading for years finally arrived on Sunday: four nonprofits filed a federal civil rights lawsuit alleging the jail's cash bail system unfairly harms poor people and violates the Texas and U.S. constitutions.
The lawsuit, which officials feared due to its potentially hefty price tag, alleges Dallas County's cash bail system fails to consider a jailed defendant's ability to pay to post bond, resulting in disparate treatment in the criminal justice system.
Poorer citizens remain jailed for weeks -- even months -- because they can't afford to pay their way out, while wealthier people can quickly purchase their freedom, states the lawsuit. It was filed on behalf of six Dallas County inmates, jailed on bond from $500 to $50,000.
"The situation in Dallas County is really a crisis," said Trisha Trigilio, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Texas, one of the groups filing the lawsuit Sunday. "The system is unfair and obviously unconstitutional, and we think it's time for county officials to treat this problem with the urgency it deserves."
Though inmates are entitled to the presumption of innocence, the cash bail system effectively coerces guilty pleas and results in longer jail and prison sentences for poor people, according to lawyers for the ACLU, Civil Rights Corps and Texas Fair Defense Project, who filed the suit in northern district of Texas federal court.
This system of pretrial detention causes people who are already struggling financially to lose their jobs and housing, and separates parents and children, the lawsuit alleges.
Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price said the county has long expected this lawsuit, but he was still disappointed. He said the county is working toward implementing a risk assessment tool that "works for the benefit of all."
"I recognize the tenets of the lawsuit," Price said. "You've got to have the instruments to talk about the issue of public safety, which is first and foremost, and not to indenture yourself to a debtors' prison."
County Judge Clay Jenkins said he generally supports bail reform.
"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," Jenkins said. "That's bad for everyone, and it's why Dallas County is working to put a risk assessment tool in place and improve our system."
Sheriff Marian Brown, who was also named as a defendant, declined to comment. Presiding State District Judge Brandon Birmingham declined to comment.
Last year, officials promised to reform Dallas County's system after The Dallas Morning News published a story about Angela Jessie, a grandmother jailed for two months after she was caught shoplifting two school uniforms, a $105 crime.
She could not afford to pay her $150,000 bail.
But while county officials study alternatives to cash bail, such as pretrial risk assessment tools, poor arrestees continue languishing in the jail. The plaintiffs calculate this costs taxpayers about $225,321 per day-- or $82.2 million per year.
The lawsuit, filed on behalf of several inmates, seeks class-action status, claiming about 70 percent of the jail population are presumptively innocent people who simply cannot afford bail.
One-third of the Dallas County Jail population has a mental illness, the lawsuit alleges.
One of the inmates named as a plaintiff in the lawsuit is Destinee Tovar, a 19-year-old woman jailed for theft of property between $100 and $750. Her bail is set at $1,500. A handwritten affidavit filed with the lawsuit states she struggles to find stable housing, doesn't have a job and can't pay for the basic necessities of life -- but none of the judges who set her bail amount asked if she could afford it.
Bail is the money people accused but not convicted of crimes pay to get out of jail until their case goes to trial or is resolved. It's essentially a promise to show up for court, in cash.
Dallas, Harris and several other counties in Texas have for years relied on fixed "schedules" to set bond for jailed defendants, without considering someone's ability to pay or risk to public safety.
The same groups that are suing Dallas County have already had some success in Harris County. Last year, a federal judge there ruled that the bail system was unconstitutional and ordered the release of nearly all misdemeanor defendants from jail within 24 hours of their arrest, regardless of their ability to pay bail.
Harris County appealed to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which has not yet ruled on the case. That order could dramatically impact Texas' entire criminal justice system.
Nationally, some cities and states have chosen to abolish the practice in recent years. In other communities, civil rights groups have won several lawsuits alleging cash bail systems violate inmates' rights to equal protection and due process under the law.
Experts say Texas' current system is particularly tough on women, who usually make less money than men and account for a growing number of inmates.
The number of women awaiting trial in Texas county jails has risen by 48 percent since 2011.
Earlier this month, Dallas County officials publicly pledged to focus new attention on locking up less women pretrial, especially those deemed low-risk to the public, following several months of reporting by The News that revealed this trend -- and its consequences for women and their children.
"Unfortunately, custody is designed for males," Commissioner Price told officials at that January meeting, called in response to The News' continuing coverage. "We have some tremendous challenges."
People arrested by agencies other than Dallas County Sheriff's Office or Dallas Police Department typically wait in jail even longer, the lawsuit alleges.
Most sit in municipal jails in the city of their arrest first, and often wait several days to be transferred to the larger county jail. If an inmate is physically or mentally ill, or doesn't speak English, the process can take even longer.
The lawsuit also alleges judges leverage Dallas County's cash-based system to minimize the backlog of cases on their dockets so that they can process as many cases as possible per week, and prosecutors use it to increase conviction rates.
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