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Battle over Dallas County’s cash bail system ends after U.S. Supreme Court declines to step in

 Magistrate Judge Hal Turley sets bail for defendants in Dallas County's Lew Sterrett Justice Center in 2018.
Dallas County
Magistrate Judge Hal Turley sets bail for defendants in Dallas County's Lew Sterrett Justice Center in 2018.

A six-year legal battle over Dallas County’s bail practices ended Monday when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review an appeals court decision.

Daves v. Dallas County was filed in federal district court in 2018 by criminal defendants who argued the county’s pre-trial detention system discriminates against defendants who can’t afford bail.

A district court judgeissued a temporary order saying the county’s post-arrest procedures routinely violate the constitutional rights of inmates who can’t afford to pay for release as they await the resolution of their cases. U.S. District Judge David Godbey sided with the plaintiffs’ allegation that the county uses “wealth-based detention” by imposing pre-set bail amounts that often keep poor defendants locked up while wealthier ones go free. Godbey gave the county 30 days to change its system.

On appeal, though, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Supreme Court precedent requires federal courts to abstain from revising state bail bond procedures. The court also said Texas’ new bail laws enacted through 2021’s Senate Bill 6 mooted the lawsuit. Signed by Gov. Greg Abbott in 2021, SB 6 banned the release of people accused of violent crimes on personal bonds, requiring that they instead pay cash.

The appeals court decision stands and the case is closed because the highest court on Monday said they would not hear the case.

Bail is a legal mechanism to ensure that defendants who have not been convicted and are awaiting trial show up to court hearings. Most jurisdictions across the country rely on a money bail system, where defendants can pay a bond amount set by a fixed schedule for their release. Defendants can either pay the full bail amount, which is refundable if they show up for all of their hearings. Or they can pay a nonrefundable percentage — usually 10% — to a bail bond company that pays the total bond amount. If a defendant can’t afford to pay, they are often stuck in jail for weeks or months.

In Texas jails, about 70% of inmates are awaiting trial, according to data from the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.

Existing Texas law requires officials to consider a defendants’ ability to pay when setting bail. But in Dallas County, a judge found that judicial magistrates set bail amounts based on the alleged crime and prior convictions without determining an inmate’s ability to pay.

Criminal justice advocates say that cash bail systems are both unconstitutional and contribute to overcrowding in county jails. Research has found that cash bail is associated with an increase in recidivism, job loss and racial disparities and does not improve public safety. People detained pretrial are also more likely to plead guilty than those released.

“There’s a false narrative that jailing people is what makes us safe,” said Dustin Rynders, legal director at the Texas Civil Rights Project. “The reality is that county jails are temporary solutions until a case is addressed and it’s just this expensive, inhumane process that continues to need to be reformed.”

Although the case specifically concerns Dallas County, the decision could have ripple effects across the state and even nationally, as civil rights lawyers have targeted money bail systems nationwide over the past few years. In Harris County, officials agreed to a settlement requiring the prompt no-cash release of most people arrested for misdemeanors. Only people arrested for certain charges would not be granted prompt release, and they are now afforded a bail hearing where they are represented by counsel.

Other states, including New Jersey and New York have crafted similar types of bail systems. And Illinois recently became the first state to fully eliminate cash bail. Illinois’ law clarifies that everyone is eligible for pretrial release without payment, and it’s the government’s responsibility to prove that pretrial detention is necessary. People charged with certain felonies can still be denied pretrial release.

The 5th U.S. Circuit of Appeals has jurisdiction over Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi, so the court’s decision in Daves v. Dallas County could preclude counties in any of those states from challenging bail practices in federal courts.

Civil rights advocates have had some success challenging bail practices in state courts. For example, Civil Rights Corps successfully argued a case in California, where the state supreme court there found that pretrial detention should only be used for “those who otherwise cannot be relied upon to make court appearances or who pose a risk to public or victim safety.”

Attorneys in Daves v. Dallas County declined to say whether they would take the case to state court.

“All options are on the table,” said Elizabeth Rossi of Civil Rights Corps, an advocacy group that represented the plaintiffs. “State level officials bear a huge responsibility for acknowledging and fixing the devastating bail system they’ve allowed to fester across the state.”

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Pooja Salhotra | The Texas Tribune