Thousands of prisoners are housed every day in the Dallas County Jail. Some of them are non-violent offenders who just don't have the money to come up with even minimal bail. An effort is underway now to change that for some.
County Commissioners have authorized creating a pretrial division that brings the county’s bail system to the modern era. Bail would be set based on a person's risk and criminal history, not ability to pay bail or post a bond.
The county’s probation director will oversee the new division, which will do a risk assessment on each person booked into the jail. The magistrates will use it to determine a person’s bail. In some cases, it may mean that some non-violent offenders get released without paying any bail money.
Once released, they will be required to regularly meet with pre-trial officers.
“There's a lot of people who end up in jail who can't afford a bond, who lose their jobs, lose their apartment and end up homeless," said Criminal Court Judge Nancy Mulder, the presiding judge over the county’s misdemeanor courts. “We want everybody to be treated fairly, and how much money you make shouldn't affect that.”
The bond for a typical misdemeanor is $500, but some people can't even afford the $50 it would take to post a bond.
The math makes sense because it will likely save taxpayers' money, too. It costs about $70 a day to house each of county’s roughly 5,300 prisoners. It’s a tab that runs about $155 million annually.
“This is definitely going to impact a number of people who are in jail,” said District Judge Brandon Birmingham, presiding judge over the felony courts. “In other words, it's going to drive down the jail population.”
Many large cities and counties already have pre-trial divisions. Dallas County also wants to avoid the trouble that Harris County had found itself in. Federal judges have its found bail system unfairly discriminated against the poor. That case is still winding its way through the court system.
The case of Sandra Bland made national headlines after a controversial traffic stop in Waller County. She took her own life after being unable to make bail following her arrest.
“There has definitely been movement in the criminal justice system to address the issue of bail reform," Birmingham said. “We don’t want somebody to be incarcerated because they can’t afford it.”
The county also began moving forward on the plan because they had expected that state lawmakers would pass legislation mandating personal recognizance bonds for some low-level offenses.
On Thursday, Judge Mulder granted a personal recognizance bond to a 17-year-old in a misdemeanor assault case related to a fight at school. He'd been in a jail for 44 days.
“He seemed like a young man who had made some poor choices, but not a violent person and is somebody that doesn't need to be in the Dallas County Jail," Mulder said.
The teen graduated but didn't get to walk across the stage.
The judges say the coming change is the right thing to do. After all, a person is innocent until proven guilty.