As we pointed out last month, the bail system in the State of Texas is riddled with inequities. The bail system, with the acquiescence of county magistrates and judges, has become so corrupted that the constitutionally guaranteed right to bail has been practically abolished when a defendant is poor.


In an excellent April 4, 2018 piece in the Texas Observer, Michael Barajas exposed the Dallas County bail system as one of the worst in the state. Working twenty-four hours a day, magistrates conduct secret bail hearings during which poor persons accused of crime are routinely browbeaten; even have their bail amount increased, if they dare speak without permission.


Dallas County Bail Hearings Held in Secret


Aa rule, secret judicial proceedings are an anathema to this nation’s accepted concept of justice dispensed in public courtrooms. Not so in Dallas County. The magistrates conduct secret hearings to conceal the injustices routinely administered to the poor and unrepresented who find themselves, regardless of the circumstances, accused of a crime. These accused individuals do not enjoy a presumption of innocence as their wealthier brethren do. Indigence imposes a stark reality on them: “you pay, or you stay.”


Barajas reported that attorneys for three civil rights organizations—the ACLU of Texas, Civil Rights Corps and the Texas Fair Defense Project—have joined forces on behalf of the poor accused of crime with a lawsuit against Dallas County challenging its bail system; in particular, the secret bail-setting hearings. The lawsuit, Barajas said, charges that Dallas County’s “wealth-based [bail] system” provides rich people accused of crime with the opportunity to “buy their freedom and violates poor arrestees’ constitutional rights to equal protection and due process.”


70% of Inmates in County Jail Cannot Make Bail


The Dallas County Jail on any given day houses roughly 5,000 inmates, 70 percent of whom are in pretrial detention because they cannot afford to make bail. One-minute secret bail-setting hearings determined their inability to make bail and the ensuing swift decision to place them in pretrial detention.


Elizabeth Rossi, an attorney with Civil Rights Corps, told Barajas that the secret hearings are violating the First Amendment rights of the public, attorneys, and bail reform activists who would like to monitor the bail-setting hearings.


“These hearings result in the mass pretrial detention of poor people and people of color,” Rossi told Barajas. “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.”


The corrupt bail industry in Dallas County does not want the light of public scrutiny cast on its enterprise of extorting bail money from poor people. As Barajas pointed out, bail-setting hearings in Harris County are not only opened to the public but are recorded—and it was these recordings that were used as evidence in a civil lawsuit that prompted a federal court last year to declare the Harris County bail system unconstitutional.


The Harris County bail-setting recordings prompted the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, in response to a complaint filed Houston Senator John Whitmire, to admonish three local 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 defendants show up for court,” Barajas wrote.


Sheriff Deputies Tell Arrestees to be Silent


Dallas County sheriff deputies caution arrestees before escorting them into the courtroom where the bail-setting hearings are conducted about opening their mouths during the hearing. A perceived arrogant tone of voice, a disrespectful demeanor, or a vocal challenge of the proceedings could turn a normal $300 bail into a $4,000 bail.


The mercurial whim of a magistrate, not the actual offense charged, frequently determines the amount of bail set, particularly in secret proceedings like the ones conducted in Dallas County where magistrates often act more like a dictator than a judge.


We have stressed the point before, and will stress it again hear, that the horrible, corrupt practices of the state’s money bail system will not be corrected until the state eliminates money bail system for all misdemeanor offenses and replaces money bail in felony cases with personal recognizance bail with additional conditions to be determined by risk assessment tools.


The lawsuit against the Dallas County secret bail-setting hearings will ultimately prevail in court, but the fact that the lawsuit had to be brought underscores the corrupt nature of the bail industry so determined to keep the money bail system in place. Profit has no concern for constitutional, civil, or human rights.