On the heels of a federal court ruling that Harris County’s bail procedures were unconstitutional, activists are filing a similar suit against Dallas County.
Last year, Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg directed county prosecutors to release certain misdemeanor defendants on their own recognizance. During her days as a Houston defense attorney, Ogg witnessed countless people charged with low-level non-violent crimes forced to choose between a guilty plea or spending weeks or months in jail awaiting a trial because they couldn’t afford bail.
While the Harris County case involved two individuals arrested for driving with an invalid license and shoplifting toiletries, the Dallas County defendants were charged with felonies: aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, and assault of a public servant.
One bail was set at $25,000 while the other was set at $50,000. Both defendants swore in affidavits that they were unemployed and were unable pay the bail amount.
In the aforementioned federal court ruling, U.S. Chief District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal found that Harris County had failed to consider a person’s ability to pay when setting bail as required by the Constitution.
The Dallas County plaintiff groups, including The ACLU of Texas, Texas Fair Defense Project, and Civil Rights Corps, point to one particular distinction between the defendants there and other, affluent offenders, focusing on the fact that the latter are able to buy their freedom by merely writing a check.
In other words, the system unfairly punishes people who are too poor to afford their own freedom.
Also setting apart Dallas from Harris County is that the latter touts the speed of its judicial system as a hedge against complaints over its bail system.
In Dallas, misdemeanor arrestees wait up to ten days before the opportunity to contest their bail amount, while in Harris that wait time is cut to three days at most. In felony cases, defendants can wait weeks or even months in Dallas, and even then, they aren’t brought before a judge to contest their bail unless pleading guilty.
Data shows that recidivism is a real issue within bail systems. A study conducted by Quartz Media suggests that the assignment of bail leads to a 12 percent higher incidence of conviction and a six to nine percent increase in the likelihood the arrestee commits new crimes afterwards.
In the meantime, Houston is making progress on bail reform. The city is currently using a system of personal and unsecured bonds.
Personal bonds don’t require cash up front and include pretrial services and assistance. Unsecured bonds allow a defendant to promise payment of a dollar amount only if he or she fails to appear.
Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price says that the county has been expecting a lawsuit like this one, although they’re currently in the process of reforming the bail system, and added that the county is moving towards implementing a formal risk assessment tool to be used when setting bail.
The expansion of bail options, along with formal risk assessment tools used in conjunction with knowledge of a defendant’s ability to pay, will go a long way toward leveling the bail system. Where justice and freedom are concerned, the changes may be well deserved.