The American Civil Liberties Union this week announced it had filed a lawsuit against Dallas County, accusing it of violating the constitutional rights of people arrested on misdemeanors and certain felonies, echoing issues the organization has raised in Galveston County.
The ACLU of Texas on Monday said it had filed a class action lawsuit in federal court against Dallas County and the Dallas County sheriff, judges and magistrates. Civil Rights Corps and the Texas Fair Defense Project jointly filed the lawsuit with the ACLU.
The lawsuit, filed on behalf of six plaintiffs, accuses officials in Dallas County of operating a “two-tiered system of justice based on wealth, in violation of the due process and equal protection clauses of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.”
“No person should be kept in a cage just because she doesn’t have enough money to make a payment,” said Civil Rights Corps attorney Elizabeth Rossi.
“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.”
The challenge centers on Dallas County’s system of money bail, which the ACLU asserts results in people accused of misdemeanor and felony crimes, and not determined to be dangerous or a flight risk, but who cannot afford bail, to sit in jail indefinitely awaiting trial, while others who have financial means are released before trial.
Inmates are legally entitled to a presumption of innocence, but studies show the cash bail system effectively forces guilty pleas and results in longer jail and prison sentences for poor people, according to lawyers for the ACLU, Civil Rights Corps and Texas Fair Defense Project.
Supporters of cash bonds argue the financial aspect of bail encourages people accused of crimes to show up for court. The ACLU challenges that claim. Research on criminal justice systems demonstrates money bail does not improve public safety nor court appearance rates, ACLU attorneys argue.
The lawsuit is a continuation of efforts to end money-based bail detention practices in Texas and across the country for low-level crimes, the ACLU said. The organization filed a similar lawsuit against Harris County. The lawsuit led a federal judge in April to rule that county’s bail bond practices unconstitutional and order certain reforms.
For months, a staff attorney with the ACLU has been in contact with Galveston County officials about concerns the organization has with the county’s justice system and pretrial detention practices of people accused of nonviolent offenses, according to county records.
In November, ACLU staff attorney Trisha Trigilio in a letter to the county called for a more urgent response to addressing concerns about the legal system, most notably the pretrial release system.
The organization requested the county make several changes, including having magistrates release inmates accused of nonviolent misdemeanors or state jail felony charges, such as drug possession, on cheaper personal bonds.
An ACLU of Texas media contact could not be reached Tuesday for questions about the status of its work in Galveston County.
County Judge Mark Henry said the county has not spoken with the ACLU in about two months. But if changes aren’t made to the county’s criminal justice system, Henry anticipated the ACLU might file a similar lawsuit against Galveston County, he said. The county was trying to fend that off by making changes to the bail system, he said.
“We’ve been trying to be proactive in getting ahead of it and make the changes they know they’re going to get either by us voluntarily complying or by court order,” Henry said.
Some changes have been made to increase the frequency of magistration and to allow some defendants be released and pay personal bonds as court fees assessed later instead of upfront, Henry said.
And a council of various officials involved in the county’s criminal justice system is being formed to look at changes for the county, he said. A meeting date for the council has not yet been set, he said.
“It’s not as quick as I would like, but there is progress,” Henry said. “We agreed to form a council to address the things the ACLU wants to see done.”
Reviews of the county’s criminal justice system by various organizations noted pratices those organizations saw as problems in the system.
For instance, about 70 percent of people in the Galveston County jail are being held before going to trial presumably because they cannot afford bail, Henry said. Many times, the charge is later dropped, Henry said.
“I rarely agree with the ACLU, but I agree with them on this, because these people are charged, they haven’t been found guilty,” Henry said.
The reforms are extended to nonviolent offenders who are not a flight or public safety risk, he said.
The lawsuit against Dallas County was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas.