Civil rights groups ask new mayor for changes in Municipal Court bonds

Two civil rights group on Thursday asked Atlanta’s new mayor to stop the practice of demanding cash bail from all low-level offenders appearing in Municipal Court, regardless of their ability to pay, or face the risk of a lawsuit.

The Southern Center for Human Rights and the Civil Rights Corps sent Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms a letter similar to one they sent to her predecessor in November, pointing out problems with pre-set bonds for all accused of often petty crimes.

Municipal judges preside over cases like running a stop sign, parking illegally, driving without a license, littering and loitering. Unable to afford even small bonds, indigent offenders charged with these crimes are more often sent to jail while people who can afford to pay are released.

“This issue is an urgent one,” the groups wrote in a letter delivered to Bottoms. Thursday was only her second day as mayor.

“Mayor Bottoms is reviewing the letter and its contents carefully and looks forward to responding,” Jenna Garland, a spokeswoman for the mayor, said in an email.

Cities nationwide — like Chicago, Nashville, Birmingham and New Orleans — have abandoned the practice of jailing low-level offenders when they cannot post bond for crimes that otherwise would include no jail time for punishment. The two groups wrote that they hoped Atlanta would follow those cities’ leads.

In Atlanta, there are pre-set bonds for every offense that falls under the purview of the Municipal Court. Essentially, the bonds equal the fines that would be imposed for a guilty plea or verdict. The fines are relatively low — as little as $10, $60 or $132 — but poor defendants are often unable to pay.

Sean Ramsey, a homeless man who was arrested for holding up a cardboard sign asking passing motorists for help, was held in jail for 72 days last fall because he did not have $200 for bail. The Southern Center for Human Rights, which brought a case on his behalf, noted that taxpayers spent more than $5,600 to hold Ramsey in jail for 2 1/2 months.

“As a matter of routine practice, judges of the Atlanta Municipal Court fail to inquire about the arrestee’s ability to pay; indeed, often no financial information is collected,” the letter said. “ Homeless people are routinely denied release only because they are homeless.”

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The two organizations asked Bottoms to publicly announce her opposition to jailing pre-trial defendants when they cannot pay bond and to eliminate the practice in the city court within the first 100 days of her administration.

“Your promise to champion criminal justice reform can be put into concrete form by your support of these principles of fairness and equality in the administration of Atlanta’s criminal legal system,” the letter said.

The groups urged Bottoms “to make either of these commitments” by Feb. 1 to avoid a lawsuit.

“If the City is not prepared imminently to end its reliance on wealth-based detention, we will focus our attention on vindicating the rights of Atlanta’s poorest people through other means,” the letter said.

Attorneys for the city and from the Southern Center and Civil Rights Corps met on Dec. 18, after a similar letter was sent to former Mayor Kasim Reed. But in the 10 days that followed those discussions at least 19 people were jailed on misdemeanor or local ordinance violation charges because they could not pay bails, none of which exceeded $1,000, according to the letter from the two civil rights groups.

Their count did not include people who were held less than a week during the latter half of December or those whose cases were bound over to Fulton County State Court.

“These were all people whom a judge determined were not a danger and could be released upon payment,” the letter said.

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