No-shows rise in Atlanta court; chief judge calls the causes a “mixed bag”
By Maggie Lee
Since Atlanta curtailed cash bonds for most low-level city offenses, a lot more people have been skipping court dates, leaving nothing behind but their signature on a false promise to return later.
But the city’s top judge says many people don’t realize skipping court could result in a lost drivers’ license.
“One of the questions about whether or not failure to appear rates are directly correlated to the signature bond ordinance is somewhat of a big mixed bag,” Atlanta Municipal Court Chief Judge Christopher Portis told Atlanta City Council members last week.
There were about 38,000 failures to appear in Atlanta court in 2019, according to Portis. Before the bond ordinance, the tally was more like 16,000 no-shows per year.
“But one thing that we do see in our day-to-day court operations is just the misperception from the public — because what the public mistakenly have heard is that in instances like failing to appear at court that there was the removal of any penalty for failing to appear in court,” Portis said.
If people don’t show up to court to handle their traffic cases, Georgia will suspend their drivers’ license.
And about 80% of the Atlanta court’s workload is misdemeanor traffic cases.
The most common charges associated with signature bonds are driving with a suspended or revoked license, driving while unlicensed or shoplifting less than $100.
Portis made the remarks and gave his statistics at a City Council committee work session on public safety — which a Council committee called as it prepares to hear a round of criminal justice reforms Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms is preparing.
Her new criminal justice legislation isn’t ready yet, but she’ll propose ending the possibility of jail time as a punishment for certain violations. According to an administration presentation from last month, that list might include park and public space violations, animal violations and offenses that parallel state law. Incarceration is rarely used for those kinds of things anyway, according to the city’s slides.
“We’re not proposing to abolish any charges,” said city COO Jon Keen at the Feb. 4 work session. “We’re just proposing to change the penalty for some of these charges, but we have not put forth the list of charges that would be proposed to be changed in each phase.”
Back in 2018, Bottoms signed the legislation that set a new default: no cash bail requirement for people awaiting a hearing on nonviolent misdemeanors or ordinance violations. She and other supporters of the idea say that cash bail penalizes people who are simply too poor to bail out — where as a comfortable person facing the same charges could wait for their court date at home.
And she’s promised to close the city’s long-underused jail — and turn it into a center for equity. That is, a place where people could get things like child care, GED classes, job training, maybe even housing.
The changes have been too slow for some, like the vocal and growing chorus of people who want the jail closed already.
But on the other hand, part of a Buckhead audience booed the mayor back in 2019 when she talked about having ended a contract with ICE to hold immigration detainees in the jail.
Her new legislation may get a tough hearing in City Council and among the public, as Bottoms campaigns for re-election this year.
She’ll have to convince folks that the city can still deter people from doing antisocial or dangerous things, even if the threat of jail isn’t there.