At the Dallas County jail, about 5,000 people are held behind bars every day. So far this year, only 23 percent have been able to post bail, leaving most trapped in pretrial detention. After days or weeks in jail, with their housing and jobs often lost, most end up pleading guilty regardless of their actual guilt.
Pretrial detention due merely to inability to make bail is a problem across the United States. As you may recall, in February the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals found Harris County's bail system unconstitutional.
The appellate court determined that the system disproportionately affected the poor, creating an "absolute deprivation of their most basic liberty interests -- freedom from incarceration" long before they had been convicted of any crime. It also found that Harris County had made bail and bond decisions mechanically and without regard to the defendant's ability to pay.
The ruling finding those practices unconstitutional applies throughout the 5th Circuit, which includes Texas.
A class-action lawsuit filed in January makes similar claims about Dallas County. Unlike in most courts, bail hearings in Dallas County are closed to the public. Family, social workers and even lawyers are prohibited. That makes it hard to say whether the bail process is fair.
After the class action was filed, a federal judge ordered Dallas County to release video of some bail hearings. After numerous objections, the county issued footage of three days of July bail hearings. It still refuses to open the hearings to the public, citing logistics and security concerns.
According to the video, a Dallas County bail hearing lasts no longer than 15 seconds. A magistrate judge uses a predetermined schedule to set bail, asks the defendant if they're a U.S. citizen, and then remands them to jail. That sounds much like what the 5th Circuit found in Harris County.
In February, Dallas County began performing a brief assessment of defendants' financial resources before setting bail. However, the magistrate judges are told not to deviate from the bail schedules, and the county's reliance on the schedules prevents arrestees from having any meaningful chance to challenge their bail amounts until days or even weeks have passed. Moreover, recent arrestees report that they are still being given bail amounts far beyond their means.
The bail system in Dallas County seems to invoke the same equal protection and due process concerns that Harris County's did. Harris County is said to have spent over $5 million defending its bail system from the lawsuit that ultimately found it unconstitutional. Dallas County -- and any other Texas county operating a similar system -- would be better served by spending that money on reforms.