Fighting for Bail Reform in Dallas

In pursuit of advancing bail reform across the United States, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights on Oct. 21 joined a unique coalition based in Dallas. The other groups making up Dignity Over Dollars are the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, the, Faith in Texas, and Faith in Action’s Live Free National Campaign. Bringing together activists of different faiths, races, economic backgrounds, and professions, the coalition’s goal is to end money bail in Dallas.

The coalition has begun hosting a series of educational events, led by people directly impacted by the criminal legal system. These speakers are bringing their communities’ attention to the ways the system has failed, and the ways it can be repaired.

The organization also strives to hold law enforcement officials accountable for their unjust and immoral use of money bail. “Our liberty is bound together, and until we interrogate the racist and xenophobic systems of mass human caging that plague this country, not one of us can claim to be free,” said Kerry Kennedy, president of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights. “We are proud to join with the voices of those directly impacted in Dallas to hold our leaders to a higher standard—to end money bail and the horrors of Trump’s deportation force.”

A January 2018 lawsuit, filed by Civil Rights Corps with local partners, details how Dallas County’s cash bail system violates defendants’ constitutional guarantee of pretrial liberty. Dallas County has been spending millions of tax dollars to cage presumptively innocent people in jail—along with great sums to fight this suit.

In September 2018, a federal judge mandated changes to the bail system, which follows preset amounts without considering the individuals involved. Yet, the average size of Dallas County’s jail population each month has remained essentially unchanged. Community members find it difficult to attend bail hearings, which are held without prior notice in undisclosed locations, leaving defendants unsupported by their peers and loved ones during the proceedings. In addition, defendants have been discouraged from speaking during their own hearings and are hustled in and out of rooms almost as if they were on an assembly line. At their initial bail hearing, they might spend mere seconds before a judge, without a lawyer present. Such shoddy procedures bely the courts’ intent to fairly dispense justice.

Thus far, the county, judges, and the sheriff have refused face-to-face settlement negotiations.

On Oct. 29, more than 100 Dignity Over Dollars supporters rallied to denounce wealth-based detention and the presence of Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials in Dallas County jails.

Now Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, as part of Dignity Over Dollars, challenges county officials to take the following steps in the name of providing equal justice to all:

Put an end to wealth-based detention. Assume that defendants will routinely be released before trial. Require that a judge’s order to jail an individual before a trial be supported with a written explanation. Impose pretrial detention only as a last resort.

Provide defendants the representation by a public defender, as promised by the U.S. Constitution, and hold bail hearings in open court.

Offer transparent and publicly accessible data about each defendant, including their charges and bail amounts.

Move to a practice of releasing individuals on personal recognizance bonds.

Halt mass incarceration and instead invest in communities.