WMC News & Features

Texas lawsuit challenges pre-trial system that holds poor people indefinitely; lead plaintiff is transgender woman

The American Civil Liberties Union, along with three other legal advocacy groups, filed a federal class action lawsuit late Sunday night against Dallas County, Texas, alleging that poor people charged with misdemeanors and felonies are being detained indefinitely while those who can afford bail are walking free. The lawsuit—which was brought against the county as well as the sheriff and the county’s judges—says the jurisdiction’s “wealth-based pretrial detention system” violates the equal protection and due process protections of the Constitution.

The lead plaintiff in the suit, Shannon Daves, is a 47-year-old transgender woman who was arrested for theft on January 17. Daves, who is homeless, was unable to afford her $500 bail and has since been held in solitary confinement at the men’s unit of the Dallas County Jail specifically because of her gender identity, according to the ACLU.

People arrested in Dallas County can only be immediately released by paying their full bail amount in cash or property, a sum determined without consideration of their ability to pay.

“No person should be kept in a cage just because she doesn’t have enough money to make a payment,” said attorney Elizabeth Rossi of the Civil Rights Corps, one of the groups that filed the suit. “The decision to throw a person who is presumed innocent in a jail cell is a serious one. And a person’s access to money should not be the only factor that determines whether she is free or is in jail.”

People arrested in Dallas County can only be immediately released by paying their full bail amount in cash or property, a sum determined solely on the basis of their offense and without consideration of their ability to pay. (People are also permitted to arrange payment through a bail bond company or a third person). The sheriff does not conduct any evaluation of whether a given defendant poses a flight risk or danger to the community. The bail amounts set for the suit’s six plaintiffs range from $500 to $60,0000, despite the fact that nearly all these individuals are unemployed and living in poverty, according to court documents.

Existing research raises doubts about the utility and efficacy of money bail. The use of money bail means that people are more likely to plead guilty so that they can get out of jail. Money bail has been found to increase the likelihood that someone will be convicted and even commit another crime.

Studies have also shown that non-financial conditions of release, for example unsecured bonds (equivalent to a promise to appear in court, with financial penalties for failing to do so), are as effective as achieving public safety and court appearances as money bail.

The Dallas County lawsuit is just the latest effort to challenge the use of money bail in the United States. Similar suits have been successfully litigated in several states, including in Texas’ Harris County. Said United States District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal in his April 2017 ruling, “[Harris County magistrates] cannot, consistent with the federal Constitution, set that bail on a secured basis requiring up-front payment from indigent misdemeanor defendants otherwise eligible for release, thereby converting the inability to pay into an automatic order of detention without due process and in violation of equal protection.”

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