Abrams pledges to eliminate cash bail system, decriminalize some marijuana offenses

Democratic gov candidate also presses for ‘ban the box’ expansion

Stacey Abrams pledged to eliminate the use of cash bail for poor defendants accused of low-level offenses, reduce criminal penalties for Georgians charged with possession of small amounts of marijuana and pour more funding into accountability courts if elected governor.

The ex-Democratic lawmaker said Tuesday her criminal justice plan would also expand the “ban the box” program designed to smooth the transition of released inmates and decriminalize low-level traffic violations that are now treated as criminal misdemeanors.

Abrams, once the Georgia House’s top Democrat, said her priorities will force state policymakers to make a decision: “Do we want to be the Georgia that goes backward to mass incarceration?” she asked. “Or go forward and eliminate the stories of Georgia leaving behind its best and brightest?”

Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican, made a criminal justice overhaul that expanded accountability courts and diverted more low-level offenders from costly prison beds one of his top priorities over two terms in office. He also signed a statewide “ban the box” policy that outlaws a requirement for people with criminal histories to disclose that information on a job form.

Abrams’ “Justice for Georgia” plan would go a step further. She would require local governments and private employers to follow the same “ban the box” steps. And she would seek to reduce the state’s jail population by eliminating cash bond requirement for some offenders who otherwise would sit behind bars because they can’t afford bail.

“A jail system that imposes financial conditions without considering a person’s ability to pay violates the Fourteenth Amendment,” read Abrams’ policy. “Keeping people in jail because they are poor is wealth-based discrimination.”

Abrams faces former state Rep. Stacey Evans in May’s Democratic primary for governor. There are five top Republicans also competing for the GOP nomination to succeed Deal, who cannot run for a third term.

Abrams' proposals echoed policies that several cities in Georgia, including Atlanta, have embraced. Atlanta adopted a "ban the box" ordinance in 2014 and last week approved new city-wide restrictions on cash bonds.

And the Abrams campaign invoked Atlanta’s ordinance decriminalizing marijuana – the new policy calls for a maximum fine of $75 and no mandatory jail time for small amounts – in its proposal.

She also said she would push to end private company oversight of probation, a system plagued by problems in Georgia, and raise the age that youth defendants are treated as adults to 18. Georgia is one of five states that treats 17-year-olds in the criminal justice system as adults.

“This isn’t an Atlanta problem, a north Georgia problem or a rural problem,” Abrams said of her proposal. “This is a Georgia opportunity.”