By The Dallas Morning News
Efforts to reform Dallas County’s maligned money bail system are at a critical juncture. It’s no longer a question of whether the county will enact reforms, but rather when and how.
The way the system works now, those who can’t pay cash bails are detained indefinitely while those who can come up with the money are set free until trial. Such flawed wealth-based systems too often keep poor defendants, especially minorities and women, locked up in jail for weeks or months.
For Dallas, the issue recently took on a new sense of urgency when four groups, led by the American Civil Liberties Union, filed a federal class action lawsuit against Dallas County, the sheriff, judges and magistrates for violating the constitutional rights of people arrested for misdemeanors and felonies.
It’s a legal day of reckoning that county officials have dreaded for years.
We credit Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, District Attorney Faith Johnson and others who’ve begun looking for ways to fix the problem. But the centerpiece of their tentative plan — a risk-based assessment that will weigh a defendant’s flight risk and potential danger to the public — already is being greeted with concerns from civil rights groups who worry it may give too much discretion to judges and from critics who argue that cash bails work to keep the public safe.
But there are other factors to consider.
Dallas County lags behind much of the country in keeping nonviolent and poor defendants out of jail before trial. Many jurisdictions use a variety of tools, such as ankle monitors or text-message alerts, to make sure defendants show up for court hearings — and to cut down on the cost of jail operations. Others let poor defendants perform community service instead of being locked up for unpaid fines.
Also, Dallas County now has a federal lawsuit hanging over its head, which, as Harris County can attest, could force it to make immediate changes and cost millions to fight.
We strongly urge county officials and the groups behind the lawsuit to lay down their swords and work together on a comprehensive bail reform plan.
It’s past time for a Dallas County system that better balances public safety and the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of due process and equal protections of the law.