Texas’ controversial cash bail system has been undermined by a series of recent court rulings. This month, Galveston was ordered to change its rules when a federal judge said defense lawyers should be at bail hearings for poor defendants.
A federal district judge issued a temporary injunction in the latest phase of a 2018 lawsuit. Attorneys who represent inmates claimed Galveston County’s money bail system is discriminatory toward less wealthy defendants, reported the Texas Tribune.
The court’s order did not apply to the whole pretrial system. However, it requires poor defendants to be represented by a lawyer at their first court appearance. This is the hearing at which bail is set to determine the conditions under which an arrestee can be released from jail before his or her trial.
Galveston became the third Texas county to face federal censure for its contentious bail practices. Both Dallas and Harris County’s bail systems were deemed unconstitutional in federal court. The federal judges criticized practices in which a defendant’s access to money determines whether or not they are released from jail.
In a ruling last year, a federal judge ruled Dallas County’s bail practices routinely violate inmates’ constitutional rights. U.S. District Judge David Godbey said that the county had to stop its practice of imposing pre-set bail bond amounts that habitually keep impoverished defendants locked up for days or weeks while wealthier ones went free.
The ACLU of Texas, which represents people locked up in Galveston County, said in a statement after the order that Galveston was the first court in the United States to conclude that the Sixth Amendment, which guarantees the right to counsel, also requires defense attorneys to be provided at initial bail-setting hearings.
Trisha Trigilio of the ACLU of Texas said:
“It’s a matter of basic fairness that you should get a lawyer before a judge decides whether to lock you in jail. Unsurprisingly, without lawyers to advocate for their release, many people wind up in jail who shouldn’t be there. And even a short time in jail can have devastating repercussions on someone’s life.”
The lawsuit in Galveston was brought after Aaron Booth, 38, was arrested in April 2018 on a felony drug possession charge. The Tribune noted a prosecutor recommended a money bail amount of $20,000. The figure was based on a schedule used by the district attorney’s office. Galveston County’s pretrial process at the time. Booth had a first court appearance hours later. The judicial officer automatically adopted the bail amount based on the schedule without considering Booth’s personal finances.
Booth could not afford to make bail. He was not given the chance to ask for a court-appointed attorney until after his bail hearing. He spent 54 days in jail before successfully arguing for a lower bail amount.
Galveston changed its bail practices after the Dallas and Harris County rulings. The judicial officer setting bail is now given the financial information the defendant provided before his or her first court appearance.
Texas is not alone in changing its bail practices. Some states have amended and even abolished the system of cash bail. If you or a family member has been accused of a crime, please call our Dallas defense team as soon as possible at (214) 720-9552.