Exclusive: Atlanta to reform bail system jailing some too poor to pay

Atlanta’s new mayor is pushing to eliminate the use of cash bail for poor defendants accused of low-level offenses.

The move comes after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that some indigent people were spending months in the crowded Fulton County Jail for nuisance crimes like panhandling and disorderly conduct. The Southern Center for Human Rights has challenged the city’s cash bond system and warned it could be unconstitutional.

RELATED: Suit seeks to free man who cannot pay bond

RELATED: Civil rights groups seek changes in municipal court bond

Keisha Lance Bottoms told The AJC late Monday that a proposal to reform the system is set to debut before a City Council committee Tuesday. She said it is far from finished and more changes are expected before the new ordinance is final.

“The goal is to move us away from the cash bond system,” Bottoms said, adding that the city’s legal staff will be suggesting “clean up” as it moves through the process.

Controversy over the issue arose last year, when 10 men were not allowed into the courtroom to ask for bail before Municipal Court Judge Terrinee Gundy sent their cases to Fulton County State Court. The men — accused of crimes like 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.

Even more extreme examples have become public since then.

On Sept. 19, Sean Ramsey was arrested for holding up a handwritten sign asking motorists for help. Ramsey, who is homeless, couldn’t pay the $200 bond for the offense of being a pedestrian soliciting in a roadway. His charges were dismissed Oct. 4 but he remained in jail until Nov. 29, 70 days after his arrest, apparently overlooked. He was released after the Southern Center filed a petition in Fulton Superior Court.

Randall McCrary spent more than two months in jail after he was arrested at a gas station on Boulevard for shouting at customers. McCrary, who had covered himself with his own feces, was charged with disorderly conduct. His bail: $500. McCrary was released Jan. 9 after a stranger saw an AJC story about his situation and paid his bond. Since he was in jail, the Supplemental Security Income he received because of his mental illness was terminated.

A Work in Progress

The proposed ordinance, which will be debated in the Atlanta City Council’s Public Safety and Legal Administration Committee Tuesday, says “the City of Atlanta wishes to ensure that persons arrested and booked into the custody of the City of Atlanta not remain in jail due to their inability to pay cash bond collateral.”

But Sarah Geraghty of the Southern Center for Human Rights, said that is not what the proposed ordinance actually does. She said, as currently written, it still lets judges require a cash bond to be released from jail.

Still, Geraghty said the civil rights groups were glad to see some of the language, which they believe moves in the right direction.

“It sounds like we’re on the same page in terms of the purpose of the revised ordinance and the principles at issue, which is great news,” she said.

“We think there is work needed in the body of the ordinance,” Geraghty said, noting it contained some conflicts.

Bottoms said she expected the judges, a different branch of government, to make adjustments that comply with the spirit of the local law her office is pushing.

“We need to make sure our judges are following the law as we codify it. We are making it clear that there should not be cash bonds,” the mayor said. “It is my hope … that they are aligned.”

The Southern Center and Civil Rights Corps had written letters — first to former Mayor Kasim Reed and then to Bottoms soon after she took office — asking the city to abandon the pre-set cash bail system Atlanta has been using. Other cities nationwide have made changes to their use of pre-set bail while others — Calhoun northwest of Atlanta and Houston — are defending theirs in federal courts.

“This is concerning anytime you have people who are jailed simply because they haven’t had the opportunity to have their day in court or they haven’t been able to pay (a bond),” Bottoms said.

“It’s something we needed to do as a city. It really was a no-brainer for me,” she said.

Geraghty suggested Atlanta mimic an ordinance that New Orleans recently adopted.

New Orleans does not allow the detention of anyone simply because they don’t have the means to post bond. It allows, however, for different pre-trial procedures for two categories of offenses —less serious crimes and then family violence offenses.

“What is needed, in our view, is a more fully revised, internally coherent ordinance that will eliminate the two-tiered pre-trial system of detention while also giving judges the discretion to set appropriate release conditions in the more serious cases,” Geraghty said.

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