Georgia lawmakers take aim at Atlanta’s cash bond ordinance

The city wants to keep poor, low-level offenders out of jail


An Atlanta ordinance designed to prevent low-level offenders from sitting in jail when they are too poor to post bond is in jeopardy under changes state lawmakers quietly added to a larger immigration enforcement bill.

The House Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee approved those changes to Senate Bill 452 Tuesday without discussing them during a lengthy hearing that instead focused on the immigration-related parts of the measure. Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, a Republican, backs the bill.

The changes say all defendants, including those accused of violating local ordinances, must be brought before a judge. That would hold true even if the court has a “bond schedule” allowing them to be released on their own recognizance as soon as they are brought to a local jail. Atlanta is the only Georgia city following such a system. It was adopted after reports by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and other news outlets of poor people sitting in jail for weeks or months because they could not afford to post bonds for crimes like begging for money or urinating in public.

“This is the epitome of unsavory behavior by politicians and lobbyists who attempt to pass sneaky bills that if appropriately considered, would face major opposition,” said Sara Totonchi, executive director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, which pushed for changes earlier this year in how the Atlanta Municipal Court operates.

Totonchi added that the revised version of the bill “would exacerbate wealth-based detention and prohibit local jurisdictions, like the City of Atlanta, from taking steps to increase fairness within local justice systems. This legislation is totally out of line with the deliberate, exhaustive examination of bail in Georgia that has been undertaken by judges, legislators, and community stakeholders over the last year.”

Committee Chairman Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, said the changes that his committee made to the bill “came out of the Senate as a proposal and I said ‘It ain’t a bad idea to add this.’” Declining to identify who asked for the changes, Powell said too often dangerous or wanted people have been released on their own recognizance without being vetted.

“The committee members had the substitute in front of them. We did pass out copies to everybody. Nobody asked any questions,” Powell said.

Rep. Heath Clark, R-Warner Robins, the lawmaker who shepherded the changes through the committee, said he did not intentionally omit mentioning the revisions when he briefed the panel about other tweaks to the bill dealing with immigration enforcement.

Scott Hall, vice president of the Georgia Association of Professional Bondsmen, which aggressively opposed the change regarding the Atlanta Municipal Court, said his group did not push for the changes to SB 452.

Last year, the Southern Center for Human Rights and the Civil Rights Corps wrote then-Mayor Kasim Reed about the constitutional problems of jailing poor people simply because they lacked money for bond. In that letter, the civil rights groups said the city could be sued if the practice continued. The groups sent a similar letter to Reed’s successor, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, once she took office.

Changing the bond system used by Atlanta Municipal Court was the first change Bottoms pushed in her new administration. She signed the ordinance in February, a little more than a month into her term. Bottoms’ office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

As originally drafted and then passed by the Senate in late February, SB 452 required police officers to detain unauthorized immigrants and transport them to federal detention centers. The House committee watered down that part of the bill Tuesday. It instead gave police the option to do those things.

The bill also requires Georgia courts to determine whether the defendants they are sentencing are legally in the country. If they are here without legal permission, the courts would then be required to order prosecutors to notify federal immigration authorities about them. Further, the committee inserted language requiring the state prison system to publish a report every 90 days that lists the immigration status and native countries of inmates who are not U.S. citizens. All those parts of the bill triggered impassioned discussions during Tuesday’s hearing.

Cagle’s office and the bill’s sponsor, Republican state Sen. Jesse Stone of Waynesboro, did not respond to requests for comment. As he prepared to explain his bill to the committee Tuesday, Stone said he was just seeing the House panel’s version for the first time.

The measure must still pass the full House and go back to the Senate to approve the changes.



Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Local

Police search for gunman who fired shots at unmarked cop car in SW Atlanta
Police search for gunman who fired shots at unmarked cop car in SW Atlanta

Atlanta police are searching for a gunman who fire multiple shots at an unmarked patrol car in southwest Atlanta Friday night. The incident happened while officers were investigating a call in the 1100 block of Osborne Street, Atlanta police spokeswoman Stephanie Brown said. She said a man fired several shots at the patrol car, striking it twice. No...
Former Atlanta Fire chief will receive $1.2M settlement over firing
Former Atlanta Fire chief will receive $1.2M settlement over firing

The City of Atlanta has agreed to a $1.2 million settlement with an ex-Atlanta Fire chief over his firing after he wrote a book that compared homosexuality to bestiality. The city council approved the payout to Kelvin Cochran with a vote of 11-3, according to WSB Radio, which was at the city council meeting Monday. MORE: Former Atlanta fire chief...
Ex-Georgia high school star who was cut by Falcons accused of having sex with child
Ex-Georgia high school star who was cut by Falcons accused of having sex with child

A former Georgia high school football standout who briefly signed with the Atlanta Falcons was arrested Saturday by Columbus police for allegedly having sex with a 12-year-old girl, the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer reported. Justin Crawford, 23, who played running back at Hardaway High School and West Virginia University, faces charges of incest,...
Felon faces 7 felonies after alleged robbery at Pappadeaux in Gwinnett, SWAT standoff
Felon faces 7 felonies after alleged robbery at Pappadeaux in Gwinnett, SWAT standoff

A man was arrested Monday in Gwinnett County after allegedly attacking two men in a seafood restaurant parking lot and prompting a SWAT standoff at a nearby apartment complex, Channel 2 Action News reported. Mikail Dinkins, 26, of Duluth, is accused of pistol-whipping a man in the parking lot of Pappadeaux on Jimmy Carter Boulevard before robbing...
‘Rock for Rescues’ returns to Milton in April
‘Rock for Rescues’ returns to Milton in April

The city of Milton has again partnered with the Vox Artium Foundation to offer “Rock for Rescues,” a series of events culminating in a one-day music festival April 27, 2019, to benefit local animal welfare organizations. “We’re building on last year’s success and making a few tweaks such as shifting the festival start...
More Stories