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More defendants miss court date since some cash bonds dropped

Eliminating Atlanta Municipal Court’s cash bond requirement for non-violent and poor offenders was the first initiative of Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ administration, and six months later, it has proven to be most problematic.

Implemented with the best of intentions, the bond reform system was meant to remove the burden on the poor who were charged with minor offenses, but nonetheless remained in jail for weeks or even months because they could not afford bail. But the new ordinance has delivered some unintended consequences. Most notably, a massive increase in the number of people failing to appear for their court date.

According to Atlanta Municipal Court Chief Judge Chris Portis, there were 4,062 who did not appear on their court date though the end of July — nearly 2,000 more than the same period of time in 2017. It was unclear how many of those cases were related to the bond reform.

“The clear result is a ‘get out of jail free’ card,” said City Councilman Michael Julian Bond, who thinks the ordinance was approved without proper consideration. Still, it received unanimous approval from the council.

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The city’s reform of the cash bail system took effect in March and gave the Atlanta Detention Center the authority to release on their own recognizance people with pending nonviolent misdemeanor charges or city ordinance violations.

A planned six-month review of the new system is past due, but supporters of the new system say it’s impossible to judge the early results because the data are incomplete.

Southern Center for Human Rights attorney Atteeyah Hollie said the March cyberattack that paralyzed many of the city’s computer systems also compromised computer records for the Municipal Court.

Atlanta Municipal Court was hit hard by the ransomware attack on Atlanta. It usually handles about 4,800 cases each week but has been forced to rely on paper records since hackers were reported in the city’s computer system on March 22. TYLER ESTEP / TYLER.ESTEP@AJC.COM (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Hollie said she has asked for but received no data from March, April, May and June — “Four months out of the six-month review period,” she said.

“It’s impossible to say conclusively how the the ordinance is doing” without those numbers, Hollie said. The Southern Center for Human Rights had backed the reform of the bail system, urging the city council to make changes.

Hollie has requested that the city postpone its planned six-month review of the new bond system until February 2019, which will be one year after it was implemented.

As part of the bond reform, the City Council also passed a resolution to begin a new program to remind defendants when their court date was near. It was intended to decrease the number of “failure to appear” cases, but it has not yet been implemented by the city’s Municipal Court.

Meanwhile, progressive activists have rallied around the city’s bond reform, a movement that began last year when 10 men were not allowed into the courtroom to ask for bail before a Municipal Court judge sent their cases to Fulton County State Court. The defendants were accused of crimes such as darting into traffic, possession of less than an ounce of marijuana and failure to maintain auto insurance. Unable to afford to post bail, they spent two weeks in jail before they were released.

“Atlanta likes to tell a certain story about itself. Truth is, we don’t always live up to that story,” said Raphael Warnock, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church. “We’ve made poverty a crime. We ought to call cash bail what it it: Wealth-based detention. Atlanta ought to be leading the way. Leave the ordinance in place.”

Municipalities including Chicago, Nashville, Birmingham and New Orleans have already abandoned pre-set cash bonds for non-violent crimes such as public drunkenness, panhandling and driving without a license. In August, California became the first state to eliminate cash bonds altogether.

“Today, California reforms its bail system so that rich and poor alike are treated fairly,” California Gov. Jerry Brown said.

Earlier this year, Gov. Nathan Deal pushed through a new law requiring judges to determine a defendant’s finances before ordering the person to post bail.

Councilman Bond said he supports eliminating cash bail for traffic offenses but stressed not all non-violent crimes are victimless.

“This was supposed to help the oppressed, but what about those people whose car was vandalized?” Bond said. “They show up in court but the defendant is nowhere to be found. And they’re left holding the bag.”

“A broader conversation needs to be had about all this — one we should’ve had six months ago,” he said.

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