ACLU sues Texas county over wealth-based bail system

“A system that requires people to buy their freedom is not a system interested in dispensing justice."

Galveston County Sheriff Department Deputy's along with Harris County Sheriff Deputys evacuate the Galveston County jail with buses and vans from the Harris County Sheriff's Department before Hurricane Rita in Galveston, Texas, September 2005. (CREDIT: JAMES NIELSEN/AFP/Getty Images)
Galveston County Sheriff Department Deputy's along with Harris County Sheriff Deputys evacuate the Galveston County jail with buses and vans from the Harris County Sheriff's Department before Hurricane Rita in Galveston, Texas, September 2005. (CREDIT: JAMES NIELSEN/AFP/Getty Images)

A coastal Texas county is under fire for violating the rights of people accused of misdemeanors and felonies by locking them into a cash bail system criminal justice advocates say is unconstitutional.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit along with international law firm Arnold & Porter against Galveston County on Sunday, alleging that the county’s district attorneys are setting bail limits beyond recommendations. That imbalance, the ACLU says, is keeping people without the necessary funds in jail — while their wealthier counterparts are able to leave.

Advertisement

“A system that requires people to buy their freedom is not a system interested in dispensing justice,” said ACLU of Texas senior staff attorney Trisha Trigilio in a statement. “Our client is seeking one thing: a fair hearing. Rich or poor, everyone should have a meaningful chance for a judge to hear them out before they are locked in a jail cell – but that’s not what’s happening in Galveston County.”

The lawsuit is on behalf of Aaron Booth, 36, who was arrested Sunday on drug possession charges. Booth’s bail was set at $20,000 — the minimum permitted by the county’s felony bail schedule. Despite requests, Booth, who cannot afford his own representation, has not been granted a court-appointed attorney, leaving him in jail and unable to post bail.

According to the ACLU’s lawsuit and accompanying comments, Booth is worried his inability to show up for work could cost him his job — something he needs in order to help his mother financially.

“A person’s wealth should never decide their freedom, but that’s exactly what’s happening in Texas and across the country,” said Brandon Buskey, an ACLU staff attorney. “Galveston’s bail system disregards the presumption of innocence, destroys families, and negatively affects jobs, and homes.”

Advertisement

Booth’s case is the latest in an ongoing effort by the ACLU to reduce U.S. jail and prison populations by 50 percent, in addition to addressing the racial disparities throughout the criminal justice system. The organization says 37 state affiliates are working on the effort, billed as the ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice.

Advocates across the country have called for bail reform for years, arguing that the system overwhelmingly favors wealthy and white people. More than 10 million people are arrested in the United States annually and around 70 percent haven’t been convicted of a crime. But many sit for lengthy periods in jail because they can’t afford bail — something that can have severe ramifications for their livelihoods.

The realities of a for-profit justice system make that system hard to change. Bail bond companies rake in billions every year and a significant amount of lobbying goes into requiring certain bonds. A report released by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights last September revealed that cycle of rising fines and court fees disproportionately hurts communities of color.

In Texas, the situation is stark. Last year, 3 out of 4 jail inmates in the country’s second-largest state were awaiting trial, costing taxpayers upwards of $1 billion. Bipartisan efforts to solve the problem have failed thanks to outcry from bail companies. That has left people like Booth in limbo — something Sunday’s lawsuit asserts is illegal.

Advertisement

“Our goal is to ensure that the criminal justice system is fair to everyone in Galveston County, whether they’re rich or poor or somewhere in between,” said Arnold & Porter attorney Christopher Odell.

The ACLU lawsuit comes after another heated battle elsewhere in the state. In February, a federal judge declared the bail system in Houston-based Harris County to be unconstitutional. Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal ruled in a 193-page decision that the county’s bail process violated the rights of those detained and ordered that inmates on misdemeanor offenses be released while they await trial starting May 15.