The ACLU of Texas filed a lawsuit on behalf of people locked in Galveston County Jail because they cannot afford to pay bail, challenging the county’s practice of automatically setting money bail to detain people arrested for misdemeanors and felonies. This follows a fifteen-month investigation of Galveston County, revealing that thousands of people are locked away each year, without a hearing, simply because they cannot afford to pay money bail.

The practice perpetuates a two-tiered and unconstitutional wealth-based incarceration system that devastates individuals, their families and their communities. Those who cannot afford bail must remain in jail for considerable periods of time, leading many to lose their jobs, their homes, and their children. As a result, defendants often plead guilty to the crimes of which they are charged, not because they are guilty, but because it’s the fastest way out of jail, and they are desperate to return to their communities.

With no empirical evidence that secured money bail increases arrestees’ rates of appearance in court or community safety, these practices wreak needless havoc on individuals’ lives and unnecessarily burden taxpayers.

The suit was jointly filed by the ACLU of Texas, the ACLU Criminal Law Reform Project, and Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer LLP.

Update (9/11/19): The court issued a preliminary injunction requiring the county to provide defense counsel at initial bail hearings. The court did not issue a preliminary injunction granting other procedural protections, in light of procedural changes the county made after this case was filed.

The court has also certified the case as a class action. The county and other defendants have appealed that decision.

In January, the court denied multiple motions to dismiss the case. Most significantly, the court held that:

  • People are entitled to appointed counsel at their initial bail hearing;
  • The district attorney can be held liable for using a bail schedule to “recommend” bail amounts that he knows will be rubber-stamped in unconstitutional bail hearings, and
  • The county cannot avoid liability by drafting up informal changes to its bail procedures after a lawsuit is filed.

Date filed

April 8, 2018


United States District Court Southern District of Texas Galveston Division


Preliminary injunction recommended by magistrate judge