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Dallas County Violates People’s Rights by Keeping Them in Jail for Being Poor

Jail Hallway
Jail Hallway
Brandon Buskey,
Criminal Law Reform Project
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January 23, 2018

Shannon Daves is a 47-year-old transgender woman who has been homeless in Dallas County, Texas, since last August. On January 17, she was arrested for an alleged misdemeanor and taken to the county jail. Hours later, she was brought before a judge who told her she could go home — but only if she paid $500 bail. She could not afford that amount, so she had to go back to jail.

Shannon is a victim of Dallas County’s money bail system, which uses wealth to decide who stays locked up. That’s illegal. The constitutional guarantees of equal protection and due process prohibit people from being jailed simply because they cannot afford a monetary payment. But the judge did not even ask Shannon if she could afford her release, and instead followed Dallas County’s bail schedule, a document that automatically sets money bail amounts according to the charged offense.

The jail is transparent about the fact that it values money over civil rights. It maintains an ATM for people to get cash to post their bail. Shannon didn’t have the money, and because she is transgender, the county put her in solitary confinement. For days she was isolated in a cramped cell 24 hours a day and denied contact with other people.

As Shannon told us, “I never know what time of day it is, or when meal time will be.” Tragically, her story is common throughout Texas and the nation.

On any given day, Texas county jails warehouse over 40,000 individuals who are awaiting trial. These people, who are presumed innocent and have not been convicted of a crime, comprise over 62 percent of the state’s total jail population. The story is worse in Dallas County, where pretrial arrestees account for 70 percent of the jail population. Many, like Shannon, are robbed of their freedom solely because they cannot afford money bail.

Beyond being illegal, using money bail to incarcerate has disastrous effects on an arrestee’s criminal case. It is an open secret that pretrial detention is a prosecutor’s most powerful bargaining tool. National research consistently shows that being jailed before trial increases your likelihood of conviction. In the Texas counties of Tarrant and Travis, each day of additional detention (up to 30 days) increased the likelihood of conviction by 2 percent. This phenomenon is driven largely by people who eventually break down and plead guilty to offenses that would have been dismissed had they been able to buy their release.

People jailed for even two to three days can lose their jobs, their homes, or custody of their children. Worse, because jails are often overcrowded and understaffed, prisoners face daily physical threats. Confronted by such dire realities inside and outside jail, many arrestees plead guilty simply to end their ordeals.

But their nightmare does not end at the jailhouse door. The traumas they suffer while detained make them more likely to be arrested upon release. Jailing does not keep us safe — it puts us at greater risk.

Knowing this, it’s clear why arrestees and their loved ones desperately scrape together money to pay bail. From this misery come the bail industry’s profits.

Agents typically charge a fee of 10 percent of the total bail amount. The fee is nonrefundable, even if you make every court date. Bail agents frequently entrap clients who can’t pay the full fee in installment plans, beginning a predatory cycle of debt that often outlives the criminal case. The one-sided agreements allow agents to re-arrest a defendant who falls behind on payment for any reason, with the court’s blessing.

Dallas County’s system of detention based on wealth is unconstitutional and inhumane. And Dallas County officials know it. They have been discussing the need for reform for years. Their time is up. The ACLU, the ACLU of Texas, Civil Rights Corps, and the Texas Fair Defense Project have sued Dallas County’s judges and sheriff for jailing people like Shannon, who cannot simply walk to an ATM machine and buy their freedom. Dallas County must end its addiction to money bail, and ensure that no one’s liberty depends on their wealth.