By David Pendered
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ support of a reform effort to eliminate bail for certain non-violent offenses – she cited it in her inaugural address this month – barely got through a council committee after council President Felicia Moore and others voiced grave concerns on Tuesday.
The situation reminds that Bottoms, less than a month into her four-year term, has nothing even close to carte blanche with her former colleagues on the Atlanta City Council.
The posture of the bail reform legislation is that it was approved by the council’s Public Safety and Legal Administration Committee. The legislation is to appear on the consent agenda of the council’s Feb. 5 meeting, making it eligible for easy approval. But that’s far from a done deal.
The paper got as far as it did only after the mayor’s deputy chief of staff, Katrina Taylor Parks, reminded committee members that they have been aware of this legislation for some 18 months. It was contemplated in a package of criminal justice reforms proposed by then Councilmember Kwanza Hall, Parks said. Hall was defeated in the November 2017 general election for mayor.
Moore hobbled the legislation at the start of discussion by observing that the Bottoms’ administration had just released a revised version of the legislation, which is called a substitute. Moore observed that the decision facing the committee chair, freshman Councilmember Dustin Hillis, and the committee was to approve the substitute with little knowledge of its impact, or hold the substitute in order to convene a work session to hear comments from the public and discuss legislation.
Councilmember Andre Dickens stepped up next. He said he supported the concept of the proposal but needs more time to consider the nuances it will inject into Atlanta’s city code.
Then Councilmember Michael Julian Bond spoke, emphasizing that the council should not lose sight of victims. He called for a work session to discuss the proposal.
The current lobbying effort for the measure seeks to portray bail as an undue penalty on the poor. The poor are arrested, booked and jailed, only to sit in Atlanta’s Pretrial Detention Center until their case is called because they cannot afford to buy their release by paying either a cash bond or a fee to a bail bonding company. Bond observed that he had worked for four years in Atlanta’s criminal justice branch – from August 1989 to August 1993.
“I came across individuals who were financially disadvantaged who were mean as hell, who were career criminals,” Bond said. “It needs to be brought out that there are two sides to this equation.
“I want to be sure that, as we redevelop this policy, we are doing so with victims in mind, that it is a balance,” Bond said. “We need to make sure we don’t romanticize the plight of people we are considering in this category.”
Councilmember Joyce Sheperd followed Bond. She said she supports the premise of the legislation. Sheperd said she needs more time to learn about its impact and implications, and she voiced a motion to hold the measure indefinitely. Then she cited what some would consider a misstep by the new mayor’s administration.
“I’m making a motion to hold, until we can have it much more vetted,” Sheperd said. “I think a work session would be warranted, but if not, I want a briefing. Somebody needs to come and brief me.”
Sheperd is one of Atlanta’s longer serving councilmembers. She was first elected in 2003 and was reelected in 2017 with a commanding 56.8 percent of the vote in a four-way contest.
Parks stepped forward to make the administration’s case, starting with the notion that the proposal is not coming out of the blue from the new mayor.
“In fairness to the new councilmembers, this conversation came up a year and a half ago,” Parks said. “This is not anything we are trying to ram down anyone’s throat.”
Parks said Bottoms supported Hall’s legislation at the time, and that the bail issue is a, “passion not just for her, but for many councilmembers and advocates.”
Evidently, Parks’ comments carried the day.
Sheperd amended her motion to hold and, instead, called for the committee to pass the measure Tuesday, on the condition that a work session be held Feb. 1 to vet the plan and hear comments from stakeholders. The committee had the leeway to meet again before the next council meeting only because a fluke of the calendar results in the council not meeting next week. The council meets on the first and third Mondays of the month; next week includes the fifth Monday of the month.
A time and location for the work session were not announced.