The conveyor belt driving Dallas County’s hulking jail complex, the seventh largest in the country, operates in a courtroom deep inside the Lew Sterrett Justice Center downtown. That’s where magistrates hold around-the-clock hearings to determine bail. On any given day, about 70 percent of the jail’s roughly 5,000 inmates are there because they can’t afford the price tag placed on their pretrial freedom. Arrestees say that before they enter bail hearings, jailers warn them that the price could increase if they talk without permission. The hearings often last less than 60 seconds.
Though the bail hearings have serious ramifications for defendants, they are largely conducted in secret. Attorneys, family members, community activists and journalists are not allowed inside these court proceedings. The Dallas County Sheriff’s Department says that’s because guards “need to focus on the safety of the inmates and magistrate judge.” In January, lawyers with the ACLU of Texas, Civil Rights Corps and the Texas Fair Defense Project sued Dallas County officials on behalf of several poor people, many of them homeless, who were stuck in jail because they couldn’t afford bail. The lawsuit alleges this system of “wealth-based detention” lets rich defendants buy their freedom and violates poor arrestees’ constitutional rights to equal protection and due process.
The attorneys are also suing on behalf of two advocacy groups, Faith in Texas and the Texas Organizing Project (TOP), which have tried and failed for months to gain access to Dallas County’s bail hearings. Faith in Texas organizer Brittany White says, “They’re making decisions about someone’s freedom in secret.”
Elizabeth Rossi, an attorney with Civil Rights Corps, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, alleges that Dallas County is violating the First Amendment rights of community members who want to monitor court hearings. “These hearings result in the mass pretrial detention of poor people and people of color,” Rossi said. “Dallas must open these hearings so that a bright light can be shed on the devastating, mass violations of civil and human rights that are happening in the jail every day.”
For several weeks, I asked multiple Dallas County departments to explain why the public can’t view these bail hearings; none would discuss the matter, citing the pending bail lawsuit. Dallas County felony court judge Brandon Birmingham, a defendant in the case, wouldn’t comment either, but he has in the past escorted at least one reporter to the jail to observe hearings. Citing his busy schedule, Birmingham wouldn’t do the same for me during a trip to Dallas in late March, though he offered to help sometime in the future. Sheriff’s department spokesperson Melinda Urbina later sent me an email stating Birmingham “did not obtain permission from us to allow an observer to enter,” and that bail hearings are closed to the public for security reasons.
It’s not hard to imagine why Dallas County likes to conduct its bail hearings in private. In Harris County, video footage of hearings, which are open and recorded, has become critical evidence in a nearly identical lawsuit and also bolstered advocates’ campaign to build public support for reform. Footage of magistrates browbeating poor defendants was even cited in the federal court ruling that declared Harris County’s bail practices unconstitutional last year.
The footage also inspired state Senator John Whitmire, D-Houston, to file a complaint with the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, which in January issued rare public admonishments against three Harris County magistrates for refusing to consider other conditions of release for poor people, such as so-called pretrial bonds that use monitoring instead of cash to make sure that defendants show up for court. The fallout from those videos has even raised the question of whether elected judges lied about Harris County’s bail practices.
Rossi argues that closed-door legal proceedings are just one reason Dallas County’s bail system is arguably worse than Houston’s. In Dallas, according to the lawsuit, poor arrestees languish even longer in jail. Rossi says that her group has found indigent people charged with petty crimes stuck in lockup for nearly two weeks on $500 bail, still without a lawyer or court date. She says she never encountered that kind of neglect, “where someone appears to get lost in the jail,” in Harris County.
In February, a federal appeals court largely upheld a groundbreaking ruling in the Harris County case that declared it unconstitutional to jail people before trial just because they’re too poor to pay bail. The ruling concluded that a heavy reliance on cash bail exacerbates racial disparities in the criminal justice system and leads to an unacceptable pattern of “sentence first, conviction after.” The ruling also cited research showing that people in jail are much more likely to plead guilty and face longer jail sentences compared to those who can afford to pay for pretrial release.
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