Photo by Kelsey Shoemaker.

Crime

Dallas Council Members Question Why Violent Offenders Are Being Granted Low Bonds

They also received a quick lesson about who sets the numbers: judges.

On Monday afternoon during a presentation to the Dallas City Council’s Public Safety Committee, Dallas Police Maj. Teena Schultz flashed a slide that drew the ire of the Council. It was a table containing examples of recent bond amounts. A family violence suspect with an aggravated assault history released after posting a $3,500 bond. A suspect picked up on a bench warrant for aggravated robbery—with sex assault and assault with bodily injury in their history—released on a $1,000 bond. Council member Adam McGough, who chairs the board, questioned who could be responsible for these objectively low numbers.

“As I look at this, it’s frightening,” said the representative for the northeast portion of the city. “It’s not just these numbers. We’ve been seeing this for a long time.”

He asked who was responsible. Schultz at first said bonds were handled by the county, the district attorney’s office, and the judges. In fact, judges and their magistrates have the sole authority to set bonds, Assistant City Manager Jon Fortune quickly clarified. In doing so, he gave breath to District Attorney John Creuzot’s fight against that misconception. Soon, McGough was requesting a list of Dallas County magistrates and a record of the way they set bail in various cases.

Dallas County is in the middle of reforming a broken bail system. For years, poor people languished in jail over minor offenses because they couldn’t afford to make bail, pulling the rug out from their lives in ways that didn’t fit the crime (which, at that point in the process, were merely allegations). To fix that travesty, the county threw out—by court order—the old bail schedule, which had allowed magistrates to shuffle suspects in and out of arraignment hearings in seconds. Now, they’re to take into account criminal history, the ability to pay, and an assessment of the individual’s risk to the public. But to do it they need good information and diligence, and this is where the new system may be lagging. Creuzot told me for a story three weeks ago that he believes judges may have swung their pendulum too far toward protecting low-level offenders with little ability to pay at the expense of violent individuals against whom the public should be protected. Everyone would agree that is not good.

Assistant Chief David Pughes assured McGough and the rest of the committee on Monday that he had just come from a meeting with Creuzot and that the DA was on it. That sounds great. But Creuzot has maintained that he wants a public defender and a representative from his office present at every arraignment. That would allow a check against documents at the judge’s ready during the hearing, should those documents paint an incomplete picture.

The DA’s office would be able to present the magistrate with a more complete criminal history than what may show up in the risk assessment, for instance. But that strategy has been held hostage by the ongoing court case, and short of its resolution, there is not much Creuzot can do right now. He reiterated that point Monday afternoon.

“We’re not present,” he said, meaning the DA’s office is not at these arraignments. “The judges are going to do what they’re going to do.”

Pughes says DPD can “do some things on the front end to try to assist them in setting some of these bonds at a more acceptable level.” But bail reform’s future remains tied up. The case is currently in mediation and would head to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals if the sides can’t reach an agreement. The judges want attorneys at arraignments, too, but reports spilling out of mediation say there have been disagreements over whether to use private attorneys or public defenders.

Meanwhile, on Monday, McGough and others heard about more violence in Dallas—there were 1,012 violent incidents in January, up from 927 in January 2019. Which makes keeping violent offenders behind bars as important as ever.

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