Criticism bubbles up under Atlanta's policy to curtail cash bail

By Maggie Lee

At public appearances, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms regularly celebrates the city’s moves to close the city jail and get rid of cash bail, but one member of City Council is using the word “failure” for how bail waivers are being implemented.

Criminal justice was nearly the first topic Bottoms mentioned in a scheduled address to the Kiwanis Club of Atlanta on Tuesday afternoon.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms addressing a full house of more than 200 people at the Kiwanis Club of Atlanta on Tuesday. Credit: Maggie Lee

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms addressing a full house of more than 200 people at the Kiwanis Club of Atlanta on Tuesday. Credit: Maggie Lee

There’s been a lot of discussion about the Atlanta City Detention Center, Bottoms said, and the fact that the city’s looking to close it and reuse it as a center of equity.

There’s “some confusion surrounding that,” Bottoms said. “Some people believe that it’s contributing to our crime problem in the city.”

Bottoms said that every big city has a crime problem, Atlanta’s crime is down, and that violent offenders still go to Fulton County’s Rice Street jail.

The new-ish bail policies speak to “low-level offenders who really are just too poor to pay to get out of jail,” Bottoms said.

The idea is that requiring cash bail unjustly punish poor people who sit in jail awaiting trial as wealthy people bond out on the same charges. Under a 2018 policy, Atlanta now defaults to no cash bail requirement for people awaiting a hearing on nonviolent misdemeanors or ordinance violations.

The city’s jail costs something like $33 million per year to run, and Atlanta used to rent space to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement because the city didn’t need all of it. Bottoms said that Atlanta is “leading the way across the country with this effort to close the facility.”

Sitting in the Kiwanis audience was at-large Atlanta City Councilmember Michal Juilan Bond.  The day before, he and leading decarceration activists had verbally tangled at a City Council meeting. Some said they had a good-faith belief that he planned to file legislation that would in some way return to old cash bail practices.

Bond said on Monday, (and on Tuesday too,) that his office isn’t planning any legislation. But he did say bail reform is a topic of conversation among some Council members plus the mayor’s office and judges. He suggested that some proposal may yet come up from the mayor’s office or judges.

Bond has been a critic of the policy’s implementation since at least last year.

“You have the concept of bail reform, which is very aspirational, and a very good goal,” he said Tuesday, speaking to SaportaReport. “But as I examine the effect of the legislation … the legislation is a failure, not the concept of bail reform.”

According to data from a segment of 2018, the top three charges faced by folks who got a signature (no money) bond were all related to driving — driving on suspended licenses and the like.  Bond said he could see not charging bail in low level vehicle-type cases.

But Bond he said he thinks repeat offending is up.

“It has become a real revolving door,” Bond said.

He mentioned that judges had for decades been able to release people on a “signature bond:” a promise to appear for their court dates later. The way the policy used to be gave judges more flexibility, he said, and examine whether someone had committed some offense dozens of times before.

But, if there’s anything both sides agree on, it’s that they’d like more data. After Bond mentioned a March 11 Alive story on failures to appear, an activist challenged him to share any data he has. Bond said to his knowledge there’s was never a full six-month review of failures to appear; the hack that froze up city computers for several months last year kept the courts from making a full report at the six-month mark.

Maggie Lee is a freelance reporter who's been covering Georgia and metro Atlanta government and politics since 2008.

1 reply
  1. Avatar
    Jason Paige says:

    Releasing defendants on simply a promise to appear does NOT work. Just look at Harris County Texas were their new catch and release non-monetary bail system has generated a whopping 63% failure to appear rate. How is this acceptable. The use of financially secured release is the most effective way to ensure appearance in court. Poor people are not languishing away in jail because they cant afford a bail bond. That is simply a false statement. If there is someone who has special needs or who is truly indigent, the system is already designed to help those people. If that system isnt working fix it…don't tear down the entire criminal justice system and blame it on financially secured release. If people want to be able to post bail, let them. If they can't post bail, give them the opportunity to see a judge within 48 hours to argue for a lower bond amount or an OR release. That is how the system was designed to work and should work.Report

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