Changes to Atlanta’s cash bond system could hurt poor, critic says

The Atlanta Muncipal Court’s proposal to end the city’s practice of jailing poor residents who commit petty offenses such as jaywalking and pandhandling came under fire on Wednesday from a prominent civil rights group official who said it could make the problem worse.

Sarah Geraghty, managing attorney at the Southern Center for Human Rights, said city officials may have had good intentions in pushing to reform the cash bail system. But she called the policy that has emerged “extremely ill-advised.”

“This is a step backwards,” Geraghty said. “It will lead to more money-based, pre-trial detention for minor offenses, not less.”

MORE: Stranger pays bond to get man out of jail

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The dust up follows reports that several homeless men spent months in the crowded Fulton County Jail because they couldn’t afford to get out. One man was charged with disorderly conduct after yelling at gas station patrons while smeared in his own feces; another was holding a cardboard sign reading “homeless, please help.” The Southern Center filed legal challenges for both men arguing that higher courts have ruled repeatedly that people cannot be held in jail before trial simply because they are too poor to pay fees or fines.

Atlanta’s new mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, has thrown her political clout behind fixing the problem, making it among her first initiatives since taking office earlier this month. 

In an interview with The Atlanta Journal Constitution this week, Bottoms said she wants to eliminate cash bonds for city ordinance violations and many traffic offenses so that offenders can be released on their own recognizance — or a signature bond — rather than waiting in jail at taxpayer expense for their cases to be resolved. 

The mayor’s plan sailed through a City Hall committee. On Wednesday, the Atlanta Municipal Court took the wraps off its own version, which closely mirrors the mayor’s. Court officials also said Wednesday they were revising their bail schedule. The court said in a news release that the updated procedures would “ensure its continued commitment to public safety, fairness and justice.”

According to the new policy, defendants may be given signature bonds and released from jail until they go to court to resolve their cases if they are charged with “new non-violent state traffic and/or city ordinance offenses that do not pose a significant public safety threat.” The policy says anyone charged with “new offenses posing a significant risk to the public and/or themselves” will have to go before a judge and ask for bail, which could be a cash bond or released on their own recognizance.

That’s one of the problems, Geraghty said.

“The policy does not require the use of signature bonds in any case,” Geraghty said. “Even for the most minor offenses, there is still discretion to detain people only because they cannot pay small bail amounts.”

She said the new policy would allow judges to impose a cash bond for people charged with offenses such as littering, driving without a license or shoplifting if the judge thinks the defendant poses “a significant threat to public safety,” a category that isn’t defined.

Bottoms said through a spokesperson that all with interests in the cash bail issue need to coordinate — the mayor’s administration, the courts and advocates for the poor.

"The City of Atlanta is committed to the principle that no one should be jailed because of their inability to pay bond,” spokeswoman Jenna Garland said in an email.

“The Municipal Court’s new SOP (policy) was developed independently by the judges. The Bottoms administration is taking a new course of action. Our hope is that the Municipal Court will follow our lead, and not continue to expose us to potential litigation through their actions,” Garland said.

In addition to challenging some of the lengthy detentions in court, the Southern Center for Human Rights and the Civil Rights Corps have written letters to Bottoms and her predecessor, Kasim Reed, demanding that the city find an alternative to cash bail.

They urged Atlanta to follow the leads of Chicago, Nashville and Birmingham, some of the cities that have abandoned cash bail systems.

New Orleans recently adopted a system that allows for two categories. Those charged with less serious offenses such as shoplifting, pedestrian soliciting in roadway, criminal trespass or littering will not have to pay a cash bond but would be released on recognizance; they will be released from jail with a notice of when to appear in court. The other group — those charged with battery or family violence — will be detained until they go before a judge within 24 hours to have a bond set that doesn’t require money but perhaps conditions like a “stay-away order.”

The two groups warned Atlanta it could be sued like Houston and the city of Calhoun in northwest Georgia, which are both defending their cash bail systems in federal court.

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