Civil rights groups have filed a suit against Dallas County, Texas, over allegations that officials are running an unconstitutional judicial system that forces defendants, including a transgender woman who has struggled with homelessness and unemployment, to spend days or weeks behind bars before trial simply because they can’t afford to pay bail.
That system has allegedly had direct consequences for plaintiff Shannon Daves, a 47-year-old who like many defendants was arrested on low-level charges. After being booked for misdemeanor theft earlier this month, Daves was unable to post $500 bail. As a result, she was indefinitely detained in solitary confinement, due to the county’s policy on transgender inmates, while she awaited trial. Daves says she was confined to her cell for 24 hours a day.
“I never know what time of day it is or when mealtime will be,” she wrote in an affidavit filed in the case. “I feel that because I am transgender they have allowed me to fall through the cracks.”
The federal class action lawsuit, filed this week, details a callous pretrial process in which Dallas County judges file rapidly through arrestees, assigning predetermined bail amounts based solely on the type of charge. As in many jurisdictions in Texas and around the nation, when judges assign bail they don’t ask whether individuals can afford to pay the money. They also don’t consider other non-monetary conditions that might otherwise allow poorer defendants to be released while awaiting trial. This process leaves many people left to languish in jail, where they may end up losing jobs or shelter, getting stripped of access to public assistance or other support systems, or being separated from their families. Although these defendants are still legally presumed innocent under the law, they are effectively punished long before any determination of guilt.
These practices contribute substantially to the number of people incarcerated in the U.S. At any time, there are nearly 450,000 people who have not been convicted of a crime in jails across the country, with many facing only low-level charges. They account for nearly two-thirds of the jail population, and one-fifth of all people behind bars. Jailing these people costs U.S. taxpayers approximately $38 million each day, or $14 billion annually, according to a Pretrial Justice Institute report published last year.
This “two-tiered system of justice” in Dallas County disproportionately affects people of color and the poor and violates the due process and equal protection clauses of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, claims the lawsuit, filed by Civil Rights Corps, the Texas Fair Defense Project and the American Civil Liberties Union. The plaintiffs, six indigent misdemeanor and felony defendants arrested in Dallas this month, are seeking injunctive relief to halt the county’s judicial system. The suit names as defendants Dallas County and the county’s sheriff, as well as the felony and misdemeanor court magistrate judges who currently assign bail to defendants.
The Dallas County suit is the latest to challenge the use of money bail in jurisdictions around the country. Civil rights groups claim such “wealth-based” detention practices provide no public safety benefit and come at a high cost to taxpayers, all while forcing many poorer defendants to plead guilty just to get out of jail.