Cash bail system promotes profit, not justice

BailGavel

Bail is not intended to be a punishment; its intended purpose is to make sure that people show up for their court date. But in communities across Texas, people who are still presumed innocent are being held in jail because they can’t afford to post bail. The Harris County money bail system has been challenged in court and found unconstitutional by a federal judge for precisely this reason.

But in an op-ed piece in the Houston Chronicle last week, City Council Member Michael Kubosh – who also happens to be a bail bondsman – defended money bail as indispensable to the maintenance of public safety. What he failed to mention, of course, is that bondsmen like him profit from subverting the basic American principle of “innocent until proven guilty.”

Here’s how: If you have been arrested and booked into jail, a judge will assign you a bail amount of, for example, $2,500. What happens next depends entirely on how wealthy you are.

If you can pay in full, you go home. If you can afford to pay a bondsman 10 percent of the amount – $250 – and you agree to wear his branded ankle monitor or submit to whatever other conditions he might impose on you, then you can go home. The catch, of course, is that even if you are innocent, even if your charges are dismissed, the bondsman still gets to pocket your $250.

If you don’t have $250 – the most common scenario, as well as the worst – you will sit in a cell awaiting trial, possibly for months, while taxpayers foot the bill for your incarceration, your food and your medical care. You will almost certainly lose your job and possibly your home and even custody of your children. In other words, your life will be ruined; again, even if you are innocent of the crime with which you have been charged.

Such a system is clearly not interested in justice. It is interested only in money.

As two people involved in civil rights and community organizations advocating for bail reform, we do not suggest that everyone charged with a crime should simply be released from jail. What we are saying is that determination should not be made on as unjust, ineffective and predatory a consideration as money bail. Those few people who are truly dangerous should be detained no matter the size of their wallets, based on an adequate hearing and a transparent order that recites the reasons the person is too dangerous to let go. But studies show that nearly everyone who is detained pre-trial can be released without jeopardizing public safety, and there are a wealth of proven alternatives: text message alerts of court dates, transportation to court, pre-trial diversion programs and treatment for mental health and addiction, among others.

We’ve already witnessed the effectiveness of the alternatives. New Jersey, for example, once the center of the bail bond industry, recently eliminated money bail via statewide legislation that came into effect in January 2017. By June of that year, jail populations were down nearly 20 percent without any meaningful reported decline in public safety.

Kubosh is right about one thing: Almost all Texas counties do rely on a money bail system to release defendants. But all that means is that almost all Texas counties have an unconstitutional system of pretrial release. This is exactly why Harris County isn’t the only jurisdiction facing a challenge to its money bail system. Last week civil rights organizations filed a federal class action lawsuit against Dallas County for similar violations. Other such challenges are underway all across the country.

It’s time for Texas to end its twisted addiction to money bail and start using the tools to ensure that no one’s liberty is contingent on the size of their pocketbooks. Texans have a #Right2Justice.

Jackson and Jenkins are members of the Right2Justice Coalition.

This story originally appeared 2/1/2018 in the Houston Chronicle.

TOP Ed Fund, Faith In Texas Join Dallas County Bail Practices Lawsuit to Demand Public Access to Bail Proceedings

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DALLAS — Today, January 30, 2018, social justice organizations Texas Organizing Project Education Fund and Faith in Texas became plaintiffs in the lawsuit alleging unconstitutional bail practices in Dallas County, TX, by Civil Rights Corps, the Texas Fair Defense Project, the ACLU of Texas, and the American Civil Liberties Union filed on January 21, 2018. The organizations, who are working to end mass incarceration in Dallas County, were denied access to bail proceedings by the Dallas County Sheriff in violation of the public’s First Amendment rights.

“Justice can’t be done in secret,” said Tarsha Jackson, criminal justice director for Texas Organizing Project Education Fund. “We are all entitled to fair treatment under the law, and right now by keeping bail proceedings behind closed doors, Dallas County is denying its residents, the accused and the public at large, a basic tenet of our criminal justice system—free and open access. We want to force open those doors, and shine a bright light on the injustices being committed on poor people who are being incarcerated before guilt has been established because they can’t afford to buy their freedom. As a group that organizes people of color so they can fight for the power and representation they deserve, Texas Organizing Project Education Fund is proud to join this lawsuit as a plaintiff.”

The lawsuit’s amended complaint alleges that Dallas County and the Dallas County Sheriff have prevented representatives from Texas Organizing Project Education Fund and Faith in Texas from attending and observing the proceedings where people charged with offenses are told their bail amounts, which the First Amendment requires to be open to the public.

“Matthew 25 teaches us that it is our duty as Christians to help the hungry, the thirsty, the sick, the weary, and those in prison,” said Rev. Edwin Robinson, executive director for Faith in Texas. “As people of faith we believe it’s not just our responsibility or our legal right, but more importantly it is our faithful calling to be with our sisters and brothers in every place of human need. Being denied access to bail proceedings is not just a hurdle, but a brick wall preventing us from living out our sacred calling of caring for our neighbors.”

The original suit, filed on behalf of six plaintiffs in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas, accuses officials in the 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.

“Faith in Texas and Texas Organizing Project Education Fund are doing tremendous work pushing to end mass incarceration in Dallas County,” said Kali Cohn, staff attorney for the ACLU of Texas. “As plaintiffs in this lawsuit, they are standing up once again to demand that the public has the tools to hold decision makers accountable.”

Read the amended complaint here.

Texas Organizing Project Education Fund organizes Black and Latino communities in Harris, Bexar and Dallas counties. For more information, visit organizetexas.org.

Faith in Texas is a multi-racial faith movement for social justice. We train teams of leaders in local churches, mosques, and synagogues that serve people of color and low and moderate income people.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas is the leading civil rights organization in the Lone Star State. Since our formation in 1938, we have worked in the courts, the legislature, and through public education to protect civil rights and individual liberty.

The ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice fights mass incarceration and combats racial disparities in the criminal justice system. The campaign’s bail reform initiative focuses on ending money bail and eliminating wealth-based pretrial detention.

Civil Rights Corps is a non-profit organization dedicated to challenging systemic injustice in the American legal system. We work with individuals accused and convicted of crimes, their families and communities, people currently or formerly incarcerated, activists, organizers, judges, and government officials to challenge mass human caging and to create a legal system that promotes equality and human freedom.

The Texas Fair Defense Project’s mission is to fight for a criminal justice system that respects the rights of low-income Texans. We envision a new system of justice that is fair, compassionate, and respectful.

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TOP statement on Dallas County Bail Lawsuit

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The following statement was made by Tarsha Jackson, criminal justice director of Texas Organizing Project (TOP), on the lawsuit filed against the Dallas County bail system:

“We applaud the filing of a lawsuit that challenges the constitutionality of Dallas County’s bail system that requires people to buy their freedom, effectively punishing them before guilt has been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt, the cornerstone principle of our justice system.

“A majority of people in the Dallas County Jail are there because they can’t afford bail. Not only is this practice in violation of the Eighth Amendment, but it is costly to taxpayers and disproportionately hurts people of color. Even a couple of days spent in jail can be devastating to people already living on the margins of society.

“Also, keeping people in jail on excessive bonds serves to cover up deep and intractable societal problems including drug addiction and mental health.

“TOP and Faith in Texas are partnering to organize the community around bail reform and urge the county to settle this lawsuit because it is indefensible.

“We are confident that courts will ultimately stop Dallas County from keeping people in jail simply because they can’t afford to pay for their freedom. The main question left to be answered is how much taxpayer money will District Attorney Faith Johnson waste to defend this unjust practice?”

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Texas Organizing Project organizes Black and Latino communities in Dallas, Harris and Bexar counties with the goal of transforming Texas into a state where working people of color have the power and representation they deserve. For more information, visit organizetexas.org.