The Dallas Morning News’ wrongheaded editorial about bail reform is being amplified by two of our city and state’s most prominent public officials. Mayor Eric Johnson and Gov. Greg Abbott have both tweeted it out, spreading its conflations and fear mongering.
The News’ editorial board, or an online producer, has also changed the headline of the editorial from “Is Bail Reform the Cause of Dallas’ Climbing Crime?” to “What’s Causing Dallas Crime to Spike?” The original headline is still contained in the URL for the piece. The new headline is a softer path to connecting the city’s rising violent crime rate to bail reform and District Attorney John Creuzot, who has championed the policy and others like it.
Here is my colleague Zac Crain, writing last week in response to the editorial:
Bail reform is about reducing a jail population that is largely made up of pretrial detainees, people who can’t afford to get out, even at seemingly low amounts like $500. Across the country, almost two-thirds of people incarcerated locally have not been convicted of anything. In Texas, it’s 70 percent.
We’ve written a fair amount over the past couple years about bail reform, a national movement—often court-ordered—that aims to eliminate cash bail for low, nonviolent offenses.
A little history lesson here. In Dallas, a federal judge in 2018 ruled that our cash bail system was unconstitutional, that individuals who had not been convicted of a crime were being warehoused in Lew Sterrett because they could not afford to post bond. This disproportionately affects the poor and communities of color. Today, reforming the cash bail system is tied up in the courts. But in Dallas County, like the state, as many as 70 percent of those behind bars are there only because they can’t afford to get out. So it makes sense to consider a new way to ensure they’ll show up for a later court date. One problem: we’re in the middle of a spike in violent crime and these low-level offenses are being conflated with the violence that’s plaguing our city.
Bail reform is not about freeing violent criminals. No one is saying that. But the Dallas Morning News’ editorial board can’t help but conflate the two. The editorial that ran last week has been shared by our governor and our mayor. And it’s wrong. It puts the rash of violence at the feet of District Attorney John Creuzot, who has advocated for bail reform and pushed for policies that rethink how we try individuals accused of minor crimes.
To the News’ opinion writers, it’s Creuzot’s fault that violent criminals are being given a low bond and released. In reality, Creuzot doesn’t set bond. Magistrates and judges do, and when they let a violent criminal off with a low bond—which we heard about last week—that’s their decision, and it has absolutely nothing to do with bail reform. Creuzot even wants a prosecutor present during arraignments to help bring context to inform the judge’s decision about bail. That doesn’t get mentioned in the News’ editorial.
One thing the News had right: we should study what’s happening when people bond out. Are they showing up to their court dates? Are they reoffending? These things are important. But as it stands, Dallas County’s cash bail system has been ruled unconstitutional. Something has to change. Zac cited data from the Vera Institute of Justice: “about 40 percent of people released on a court date don’t appear, and, based on their research, that number mostly boils down to logistics. People can’t afford child care or leave work or locate reliable transportation. These aren’t really career criminals or violent predators hunting for new victims.”
I asked Mayor Johnson’s spokesman, Tristan Hallman, why his boss was spreading the editorial on Twitter. Hallman said Johnson wasn’t passing around the News’ take because he was against bail reform. Johnson instead, according to Hallman, hopes that magistrates and judges are more protective of the public when they consider setting bail for individuals accused of violent crimes. Especially if they have priors.
“The mayor certainly doesn’t believe that jailing people or keeping people in jail simply because they’re unable to pay is good. It exacerbates inequities in communities,” Hallman said. “The mayor’s main concern is the release of violent offenders who have priors on low bail amounts without any sort of risk assessment. … His concern is these people are getting out and preying on the public.”
Which, again, has nothing to do with the cash bail system that has been ruled unconstitutional. Perhaps Twitter isn’t the best platform on which to discuss this complicated issue. Maybe the Morning News’ editorial page isn’t either.