According to the Supreme Court, the public has “a first amendment right of access” to preliminary hearings in criminal cases. However, certain counties don’t follow this rule, setting their bail hearings behind closed doors, and criminal justice groups are accusing them of trying to skirt the U.S. Constitution.
The county under the activists’ scrutiny is Dallas County in Texas, where family, lawyers, the press, or social workers are not allowed to enter bail hearings.
In order to learn what was happening behind closed doors, activists such as Texas Organizing Project and Faith in Texas filed a class action lawsuit with the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas and Civil Rights Corps representing the plaintiffs. The district court judge eventually ordered video footage released after the January lawsuit, but only footage of three days of hearings was made available.
The material proved that the court was doing exactly what activists were afraid of: Giving defendants no recourse.
In the footage, the accused often saw the judge for no more than 15 seconds, the time frame in which the judge would set the defendant’s bail amount, verify their citizenship status, and then send them to jail. In such a short period, it’s clear that neither party manages to bring up the facts of the case or whether the accused could pay the stipulated sum.
In February, perhaps thanks to the pressure from the suit, the county changed its approach, but not by making hearings public. Instead, it started offering arrestees an assessment, however brief, of their financial resources before declaring what their bail amount would be. Still, this change alone isn’t enough, as plaintiffs in the suit claim the Dallas County jails impoverished people without inquiring whether they can afford bail.
Shannon Daves, a 47-year-old homeless transgender woman, was one of the plaintiffs. Daves was arrested in January on a shoplifting charge. At the Dallas County Jail, the judge set her bail at $500 during a hearing that lasted 20 seconds.
Like Daves, thousands of people who are brought to the Dallas County jail are unable to afford their bail. As a result, only 23 percent of arrestees brought in 2018 were able to wait for their court dates in freedom.
“Bail hearings feel like calling customer service where the employees have charts with set instructions,” she said. “Judges are only concerned with getting you booked into the system. It’s all so impersonal.”
Because of the high bail costs, the system becomes overwhelmingly hard to fight. As a result, arrestees oftentimes prefer to plead guilty on their first court dates, as they already spent weeks in jail and might be tired of dealing with the justice system, lead attorney from Civil Rights Corps Elizabeth Rossi said. In many cases, innocent individuals who simply cannot afford to remain in jail one more day take sentences of time served, going home with a criminal record.
In other words, Dallas County authorities seem to be responding to the perverse incentives of running a government prison. By setting bails too high, they trap the poorest suspects, whether they are, indeed, guilty or not. By keeping them in jail for long periods of time, they end up breaking and finally giving up on clearing their name. The result is big, bold success cases for the county at the expense of the county’s poor residents. But are they real? Do they prove that Dallas officials are “doing their job?”
If their job is to serve the state’s needs then yes, they are performing as expected.