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Lew Sterrett Justice Center: Check out anytime you like, but don't expect to leave.EXPAND
Lew Sterrett Justice Center: Check out anytime you like, but don't expect to leave.
Andres Praefcke

Dallas County Pretrial Services Aims to Reduce Numbers of Low-Risk Inmates in Jail Awaiting Trial

Ever since the Texas Commission on Jail Standards reported that more than 70 percent of Dallas County Jail inmates could not afford to pay bail, the Dallas County Criminal Justice Department and local judges have been struggling to get that number down by reforming the pretrial justice system.

Dallas County officials weren’t quite sure why the pretrial population had skyrocketed, as we reported in a Nov. 17, 2015, and reform advocates pointed out that the longer inmates stayed in jail awaiting trial, the more likely they were to offend again late, a connection that was strongest for lower-level misdemeanor offenders. Poorer defendants are not only more likely to say in jail before trial, they're also more likely to plead guilty or accept plea bargains.

To reduce the jail's population and reduce the coercive effects of long stays behind bars before trial, Dallas County commissioners created a pretrial division in June under the direction of the adult probation department.. Although the number of pretrial inmates in jail is still high, the division is making moves to shift low-risk inmates and the mentally ill out the jail, where feeding and housing them costs the county millions of dollars each year, says Duane Steele, deputy director of the Pretrial Services.

"Jail pop in Dallas County is actually lower than it has ever been; however, there is still a pretrial population that Pretrial Services can assist," he said.

The pretrial justice system in the U.S. is intended to ensure defendants show up for trial and don't cause any more harm before trial. About 63 percent of jail inmates in the U.S. are pretrial detainees. Most will be released before trial on some form of bond, according to an August 2017 study “The Link Between Bond Forfeiture and Pretrial Release Mechanism: The Case of Dallas County, Texas.”

For those who can't afford to post bail out of their own pockets, there are two types of bonds to get out of jail: a financially secured bond backed by collateral, which most often means paying a bail bond company a nonrefundable fee to secure the bond; or non-financial personal recognizance bonds, which may include some form of government supervision such as an ankle monitor. Over the years, Dallas County favored commercial bail bond companies, which is good for the bondsmen but bad for poor people who are locked up simply because they can't afford the fee, which can range from 7 percent to 20 percent of the amount of bail a judge sets. A 2017 study found little evidence that requiring suspects to post bond made them any more likely to show up for court. Meanwhile, operating the jail costs the county more than $250,000 per day or about $91.3 million annually.

Inmates who get out of jail but then skip their trial dates also hit the county in the pocketbook. In Dallas County, between 25 and 35 percent of defendants fail to appear for their trials. The procedural costs — issuing arrest warrants, wasted court time — run an estimated $1,700 for each defendant who fails to appear. “It makes sense to consider the possibility of modifying justice procedures to maximize the probability of a court appearance,” researchers wrote.

The pressure is on county officials to cut costs and to be more fair, so the pretrial services division created an assessment program that allows some defendants to qualify for low-cost bonds. People who have been arrested on Class A and B Misdemeanors and some felonies and can meet certain criteria can pay a fee of $20 or 3 percent of the bail amount set by a judge — whichever is more — and get out of jail. The minimum requirements include being a Dallas County resident and sitting in jail on a Dallas County offense. They also must be able to provide positive identification and can’t be on parole or probation or have a history of bond forfeitures.

The conditions of the bond usually involve having an attorney, appearing for all court settings, notifying pretrial services when a change of address or employment happens and remaining arrest free pending the disposition of the case.

Steele said local judges initiated the push to adjust pretrial services and worked with county officials to create a system that's in line with national standards.

In January 2017, Dallas County began using the Ohio Pretrial Risk Assessment System’s pretrial assessment instrument, which is designed to judge whether someone is likely to skip court or commit another crime. Steele said the assessment looks at criminal history, employment, substance abuse and residential stability to determine whether someone is a good candidate for a low-fee bond.

Using the risk assessment also allowed pretrial services to start the Smart Justice Unit, which deals with inmates who are sitting in jail with mental health issues, Steele said. Smart Justice aims to identify and redirect high-need mentally ill defendants into treatment services outside jail. The pretrial services division also implemented mental health personal recognizance bonds, and it was recently approved for additional positions to start an intake unit and expand their hours and days to give access to people booked into jail on the weekends.

Steele said low-risk defendants are the priority target, though moderate- to high-risk offenders may also receive pretrial-supervised bond release after additional conditions are imposed like ankle monitors.

Dealing with mentally ill defendants is a priority since more than half of all adults who are incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails have at least one mental health condition and 30 percent of people in local Texas jails in 2015 had at least one serious mental illness, according to the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health.

He said the county is finally moving forward into the 21st century by eliminating the paper and folder system and implementing a “life-changing” case-management software program that makes it easier for overall monitoring. It will also help them to better inform defendants of their court dates and when they miss one. Eventually, Steele said, the system could be used to assess all inmates and provide information to judges before they set bail.

“At the end of the day, these individuals come in charged with an offence, but they are innocent until proven guilty,” Steele said. “We as pretrial officers believe that. If you get out on a low-cost bond or PR bond, our main goal is that you get back to court and get your case resolved.”

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