Low-income inmates in the Dallas County Jail filed a lawsuit against the county, accusing its bail system of discriminating against them for not being able to afford bail.
In the lawsuit, the six plaintiffs claimed that judicial magistrates considered bail based on a person’s criminal charge and past convictions and didn’t take their financial ability to pay into account. This causes poor inmates to stay in jail until their trial, sometimes forcing them to lose their jobs or housing. Some inmates even plead guilty to get out of jail sooner.
The lawsuit also claims that one-third of the inmates in Dallas County Jail suffer from a mental illness.
“This system is really devastating for the people who can’t afford to purchase their freedom,” said Trisha Trigilio, a senior attorney at the ACLU of Texas, one of the legal groups representing the inmates.
Trigilio added that the issue needs to be addressed right away, and a lawsuit may be the only way to make that happen.
One of the plaintiffs, Destinee Tovar, who was arrested for theft of property between $100 and $750, had her bail set at $1,500. According to a handwritten affidavit filed in the lawsuit, she doesn’t have a job, has a difficult time finding housing and struggles to pay for basic necessities.
Just last year, county officials said they would reform Dallas County’s system after there was a news story published about Angela Jessie, a grandmother who spent two months in jail for stealing two school uniforms, which cost $150. She didn’t have the money to pay her $150,000 bail.
Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price said the county has expected the lawsuit for awhile, but are still disappointed it came through.
“I recognize the tenets of the lawsuit,” Price said. “You’ve got to have the instruments to talk about the issue of public safety, which is first and foremost, and not to indenture yourself to a debtors’ prison.”
“We were hoping we were a lot further along in the reformation process and that the ACLU and others would see that we were making strides in that area with regards to people in custody,” he added.
County Judge Clay Jenkins said he’s overall happy about the bail reform.
“Some low-risk suspects that don’t need to be there are held in Texas jails at taxpayer expense simply because they can’t afford to bond out,” he said. “That’s bad for everyone, and it’s why Dallas County is working to put a risk assessment tool in place and improve our system.”
The lawsuit demands class-action status and says that approximately 70 percent of the people in jail presumptively innocent and can’t afford bail.
Read more about lawsuits in the news, including about the wrongful death lawsuit against the Strongsville police, on Cohen & Cohen.