Atlanta council OKs changes to cash bail system in a nod to the needy

The Municipal Court of Atlanta is where city ordinance violations and some misdemeanor charges are heard. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

Over the objections of the bail-bond industry, the Atlanta City Council unanimously adopted a proposal designed to ensure that impoverished suspects accused of mostly nuisance offenses such as urinating in public or trespassing are not left in jail while their cases are pending simply because they lack the means to pay bail.

The change, approved Monday, was Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ first initiative to ensure that low-level offenders would not sit in jail for days, weeks or months because they cannot afford bail amounts as low as $100.

The change, which will take effect 30 days after the mayor signs it, will give the Atlanta Detention Center the authority to release people on their own recognizance if they are charged with nonviolent misdemeanors or city ordinance violations while they wait for their case to be heard in court.

The change would require, however, that those accused of violent offenses continue to come before a judge for bail to be set and posted before they can be released from custody.

Late last year, the Southern Center for Human Rights and the Civil Rights Corps wrote then-Mayor Kasim Reed about the constitutional problem of poor people being jailed because they lacked money for bond. The civil rights groups said the city could be sued if the practice continued. The groups later sent a similar letter to Bottoms after she became mayor.

Mayor Bottoms’ plan, which she proposed during her first week in office, sailed through a City Council committee in late January, but bogged down for a while Monday afternoon when it came before the full council.

The council debate got testy right up to the 13-0 vote six hours into the meeting in favor of the changes.

“Some of the things you are saying are very naive,” Councilwoman Joyce Sheperd said to her colleague, Jennifer Ide, who proposed adding to the list of offenses that did not require a cash bond.

At times it became a debate over crime and what residents should endure.

“I think we need to be careful in our zeal for civil liberties,” said Councilman Michael Julian Bond. “This becomes more than just a romantic exercise in delivering personal freedoms to the community. … There are victims of these crimes, even if they (the offenses) aren’t violent.”

This is a national issue. Cities including Chicago; Nashville, Tenn.; Birmingham, Ala.; and New Orleans have already abandoned pre-set cash bonds for crimes such as public drunkenness, panhandling and driving without a license. Yet federal lawsuits are pending against Harris County, Texas, and Calhoun, Ga., because of their cash bond systems.

“This was a win for fairness and equality in our legal system. Our City Council members saw through the bail industry propaganda and did the right thing,” said Sarah Geraghty, managing attorney for the Southern Center for Human Rights.

The Municipal Court judges are working on a new bail schedule that they plan to adopt to complement the new ordinance.

Controversy in Atlanta arose last year, when 10 men were not allowed into the courtroom to ask for bail before a Municipal Court judge sent their cases to Fulton County State Court. The men — accused of crimes such as darting into traffic, possession of less than an ounce of marijuana and failure to maintain auto insurance — spent two weeks in jail before they were released.

And even more extreme examples have become public since then. One homeless man spent more than three months behind bars because he could not post a $200 bond on a charge of pedestrian soliciting in a roadway. Another man, who had covered himself with his own feces, was charged with disorderly conduct and held in jail for more than two months because he could not pay a $500 bail.

For hours Monday afternoon, dozens of advocates for the poor, one-time defendants, concerned citizens and representatives of the bond industry spoke their mind.

There were fears that murderers and rapists would go free even though such crimes do not come before Atlanta Municipal Court judges.

Nearly three years ago, Channel 2 Action News reported that nearly 100,000 defendants had been accused of failing to appear for … read more

Bondsmen argued that victims deserved to have their cases resolved in court.

“Bail is about appearance (in court),” said Scott Hall, vice president of the Georgia Association of Professional Bondsmen. “We’re talking about people accused of crimes. Without (a court) appearance, justice will be denied. … If there’s a victim, that victim deserves their day in court. And when they show up in court, they have a right to expect the person accused of a crime to be there.”

But arguments from the other side of the debate came from familiar faces on the civil rights front — Joe Beasley, the Rev. Raphael Warnock of Ebenezer Baptist Church, and Atlanta NAACP Vice President Gerald Griggs.

Griggs, who is also a defense attorney, said he has represented accused felons who were granted bond while people accused of city ordinance violations sat in jail.

“We’re talking about people who are merely sitting in the (Atlanta) Detention Center because they cannot afford to post bond,” Griggs said.

Former DeKalb County Chief Executive Officer Burrell Ellis told the council he had experienced the criminal justice system, alluding to his conviction in July 2015 on charges of trying to shake down a county contractor. Ellis served eight months in prison before the Georgia Supreme Court ruled in November 2016 that he had been denied a fair trial.

“The legislation before you does not allow the convicted to go free,” Ellis said. “It doesn’t allow those convicted of violent crimes to go free,” Ellis said. “I don’t discount anyone’s victimization. I was a victim myself. I was a victim of the criminal justice system…. The majority of those sitting in Georgia jails are presumed innocent.”

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