Johnny Manziel never saw the inside of a Dallas County jail cell — the former NFL quarterback was freed minutes after turning himself in on a domestic assault charge. Two people arrested in a woman’s murder were out within a day. And a man accused of shooting up a tire shop in a hate crime, killing a bystander, was quickly freed.
Meanwhile, scores of nonviolent defendants sit in the county jail for weeks on end, costing taxpayers $70 each per day. A grandmother spent two months locked up, unable to afford bond after being arrested for trying to steal $105 of clothes for her family. Others remain in jail for weeks only to have criminal charges eventually dropped.
That’s the current system in Dallas, and much of America: Your ticket to freedom before a trial hinges largely on your wealth. But Dallas County leaders pledge a new day is coming — prodded by a lawsuit filed this month by four civil rights groups.
Lights from a bail bond business glow along Riverfront Boulevard in Dallas. Four nonprofits filed a federal civil rights lawsuit alleging the Dallas County jail’s cash bail system unfairly harms poor people and violates the Texas and U.S. constitutions
Critics — including bail bondsmen and County Commissioner Mike Cantrell — argue the proposed changes will flood the streets with drug addicts and criminals who would otherwise be in jail.
But the question now isn’t whether jail practices will be reformed. Most county officials long ago acknowledged the system is wrong and unfairly punishes the poor.
The problem is how to reform it. The county had been moving slowly, wanting to study the issue and avoid accidentally freeing dangerous people or those who won’t show up for court.
“You can’t just let everybody out of jail,” said Commissioner John Wiley Price, who supports bail reform. “One of the things that’s good about money bonds is they have something at stake.”
Under a proposed new system, each defendant will be assessed both for flight risk and danger to the public, something officials hope will keep the community safe.
But “there are no real guarantees,” Price said.
Changes are coming that could dramatically reshape the criminal justice system and impact the lives of tens of thousands of defendants who cycle through the jail each year. Many people plead guilty just to be released, leaving them with a criminal record, lawyers say.
“A judicial system where the amount of money in a bank account is the only thing standing between a defendant and her freedom is not a system interested in dispensing justice,” said Trisha Trigilio, attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, one of the groups suing the county.
Plaintiffs in a civil rights lawsuit against Dallas County alleging the bail system violates the Constitution. Top row, from left: Shakena Walston, Erriyah Banks, Destinee Tovar. Bottom row: James Thompson, Patroba Michieka, Shannon Shawn Daves
While most of the country operates on a money bail system, Dallas is behind, the civil rights groups say, in its dearth of options for the poor and nonviolent. Other cities have more widely used methods for low-risk detainees to be released and monitored while awaiting trial.
The proposed plan — centering on risk assessment over cash bond — has met some pushback. Cantrell, the county’s sole Republican commissioner, is concerned the changes will cost taxpayers more and make the public less safe.
“The more and more exemptions that indigent criminals are getting places more burden on the law-abiding taxpayers,” Cantrell said. He added that jail could become less of a crime deterrent: “If they’re indigent, you let them out and they commit more offenses — they’re still indigent. Are you going to let them out again? Where does it stop?”
County Judge Clay Jenkins, Price and other leaders say the changes will be rolled out with care to ensure public safety and cost are managed.
“I support bail reform because 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.”
District Attorney Faith Johnson, a Republican, has indicated some support for the proposed changes, saying she is mainly worried about a defendant’s risk of committing more crimes and not showing up for court.
“The DA’s office does not support any policy that results in the defendant being held in jail before trial or disposition only because they do not have the financial means to get out jail,” Johnson said.
Producing a risk score for defendants
Here’s how the new system could work. The county will select a tool that produces a risk score for each defendant after considering factors such as housing, education, criminal background, offense and employment. Judges will still be responsible for making bond decisions; however they will have more information about a person’s level of risk than they currently do, officials say.
For those deemed low- or medium-risk, the judge could order them released on personal recognizance or another type of bond that wouldn’t require them to pay money, as long as they follow certain conditions. Defendants would be monitored by the county’s pretrial officers, with varying requirements such as regular phone calls and drug tests.
For years, the county has had only four pretrial officers, compared with the dozens in Harris and Travis counties, according to published reports. An audit last fall showed the county’s pretrial department has been plagued by disorganization and shoddy record-keeping. Now, the county is beefing up that department. Last week, officials approved nearly $600,000 to add nine employees to monitor released defendants.
Bond reform advocates say the cost of an overhaul could be offset by savings that come from cutting the jail population. The county has already reduced its number of inmates from 6,000 to 5,000 in recent years, lowering the jail’s monthly costs from $11 million to $8 million, Price said.
Research on the impact to public safety has been divided, amid a national war between the commercial bail industry and reform advocates.
A 2013 study by the University of Texas at Dallas found that commercial bonds were most effective in getting Dallas County defendants to return for court, while pretrial services bonds were least effective. However county officials said at the time that their pretrial department didn’t have enough staff to adequately monitor defendants.
“There are going to be more individuals not showing up for court,” said Scott Walstad, owner of Immediate Bail Bonds. “We get defendants who miss court to court to get the docket moving along so it doesn’t clog up the criminal justice system.”
But a Stanford Law Review article in March found that defendants who remained in jail because they couldn’t post bond were 30 percent more likely to re-offend. Instead of deterring future crimes, the longer jail stays seemed to lead defendants to commit more crimes, the article said.
Also, the article found that those who were detained longer were 25 percent more likely than similarly situated defendants to plead guilty, probably to have a chance at freedom.
The plight of one plaintiff
The six named plaintiffs in the lawsuit illustrate the reality of the current system for many poor people, most of them black and Hispanic, their lawyers say.
Shakena Walston, 29, was arrested on Jan. 19 on suspicion of assault, for allegedly throwing a liquor bottle and pulling out a knife when her sister’s ex-boyfriend showed up at their apartment, after spending several months in jail. He was there to pick up his things, Walston said, but refused to leave. She got into a fight with him, but there was no bottle thrown or knife involved, she maintained.
Shakena Walston, 29, originally from Tulsa, Okla., stands at the doorway of her apartment in Dallas. Walston is one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit alleging the Dallas County jail’s cash bail system unfairly harms poor people. She was jailed on accusations of assault for her involvement in a domestic dispute. Her bail was set at $15,000. (Ben Torres/Special Contributor)
She was taken to Dallas County Jail, placed in a holding cell for hours and learned of the charge against her only when she appeared briefly before a magistrate: aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. Bail was set at $15,000.
She was floored. There was no way she could afford that amount, or even the non-refundable fee to a bondsman, $1,500, she said.
Prosecutors ultimately declined to file criminal charges against Walston after she sat in jail for six days.
“Everybody that’s in [the jail] isn’t bad,” Walston said. “Some people just had a situation. There are a lot of people in there who just don’t have the money to get out.”
Elizabeth Rossi, the attorney for Civil Rights Corps who filed the lawsuit, said Walston’s case is not unusual. She has no prior felony charges in Texas, only a misdemeanor traffic offense in Oklahoma, from when she was a teen.
Inmates such as Walston, who can’t afford to get out of jail, are much more likely to plead guilty —even if innocent — just to get out quicker, argues Rossi.
This is how the cash bail system is harmful, she argues: People too poor to get out of jail miss work, they can’t pay rent, possibly getting evicted or becoming homeless.
The handwritten affidavits filed as evidence in the lawsuit spell out the disparities of Dallas County’s cash bail system. The magistrate did not ask any of the six plaintiffs if they could afford their bond, or talk about the specific allegations against them, the suit claims. None had a lawyer for the bond hearing.
Jailers ask arrestees if any of them can access enough cash to pay their bond immediately, and take inmates to an ATM on site, the affidavits say. Those who can’t afford to pay or don’t have anyone to call get booked into jail.
“The folks who’ve been running this system have lost sight of the fact that these are folks who are presumed innocent and have rights under our Constitution,” Rossi said. “They’ve developed these systems for processing the cases that don’t take into account the stress to individuals and families.”
The county says it’s working on helping people who come through the jail. As a first step, officials boosted pretrial monitoring of mentally ill defendants and will connect them with more services once they’re released.
“I’m a little dejected,” Price said of the lawsuit, “because look at what Dallas County has been doing — we’ve shown that we’re going in the right direction.”