Atlanta mayor signs new ordinance changing cash bail system in a nod to the needy

The Municipal Court of Atlanta is where city ordinance violations and some misdemeanor charges are heard. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

The Municipal Court of Atlanta is where city ordinance violations and some misdemeanor charges are heard. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms signed an ordinance Tuesday that eliminates the Municipal Court’s cash bond requirement for some low-level offenders who otherwise would sit in jail because they can’t afford bail.

“I am hopeful we have it right this time,” Bottoms said with City Council members and advocates for the poor crowded behind her for the signing. The ceremony took place 16 hours after the council approved the change with a unanimous vote.

The change is similar to approaches adopted in cities that have already abandoned cash bail systems for people charged with some traffic offenses and nuisance offenses such as begging, urinating in public or public drunkenness.

“We have avoided a lawsuit by the Southern Center for Human Rights,” she quipped, referring to a pair of letters the civil rights group sent the city about problems with impoverished offenders sitting in jail for days, weeks and months because they could not afford their bail.

The ordinance was the first initiative of the new Bottoms administration.

“This legislation was so incredibly important and such a new conversation,” Bottoms said. “But not new in so many ways. ... This is making a difference in the city of Atlanta.

“You will not be held in jail unfairly just because you don’t have the money (for bail),” she said. “There are poor people who don’t have resources to get out of jail.”

She said it made no fiscal sense to hold someone who cannot post a $500 bond at a cost to taxpayers of thousands of dollars.

After six hours of public comment and debate Monday afternoon, the City Council approved the ordinance 13-0 over the objections of the bail-bond industry.

Before the council met, some residents received robocalls predicting the change would allow accused criminals to return to the streets to “break into our homes, steal our cars and shoplift at our local stores.” There were some who made similar claims during the two minutes allotted to each person wanting to speak during the council meeting.

The change, which takes effect in 30 days, gives the Atlanta Detention Center the authority to release on their own recognizance people with pending nonviolent misdemeanor charges or city ordinance violations.

A judge will have to set bail for defendants accused of violent offenses.

Controversy in Atlanta arose 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 men — accused of crimes such as darting into traffic, possession of less than an ounce of marijuana and failure to maintain auto insurance — spent two weeks in jail before they were released.

Then later in the year, the Southern Center for Human Rights and the Civil Rights Corps wrote then-Mayor Kasim Reed about the constitutional problems of jailing poor people simply because they lacked money for bond. It was in that letter that the civil rights groups said the city could be sued if the practice continued. The groups sent a similar letter to Bottoms once she took office.

All the while, the Southern Center was also addressing some extreme examples by filing petitions in Fulton Superior Court to win their releases from jail.

One homeless man spent more than three months behind bars because he could not post a $200 bond on a charge of pedestrian soliciting in a roadway. Another man, who had covered himself with his own feces, was charged with disorderly conduct and held in jail for more than two months because he could not pay a $500 bail.

The plan Bottoms proposed during her first week in office sailed through a City Council committee in late January, but bogged down for a while when it was before the full council.

The council debate was testy right up to the 13-0 vote.

“Some of the things you are saying are very naive,” Councilwoman Joyce Sheperd said to her colleague, Jennifer Ide, who proposed adding to the list of offenses that did not require a cash bond.

At times it became a debate over crime and what residents should endure.

“I think we need to be careful in our zeal for civil liberties,” said Councilman Michael Julian Bond. “This becomes more than just a romantic exercise in delivering personal freedoms to the community. … There are victims of these crimes, even if they (the offenses) aren’t violent.”

This is a national issue. Cities including Chicago; Nashville, Tenn.; Birmingham, Ala.; and New Orleans have already abandoned pre-set cash bonds for crimes such as public drunkenness, panhandling and driving without a license. Yet federal lawsuits are pending against Harris County, Texas, and Calhoun, Ga., because of their cash bond systems.

“This was a win for fairness and equality in our legal system. Our City Council members saw through the bail industry propaganda and did the right thing,” said Sarah Geraghty, managing attorney for the Southern Center for Human Rights.

The Municipal Court judges are working on a new bail schedule that they plan to adopt to complement the new ordinance.

For hours Monday afternoon, dozens of advocates for the poor, one-time defendants, concerned citizens and representatives of the bond industry spoke their mind.

There were fears that murderers and rapists would go free even though such crimes do not come before Atlanta Municipal Court judges.

Nearly three years ago, Channel 2 Action News reported that nearly 100,000 defendants had been accused of failing to appear for their cases at Atlanta Municipal Court.

Bondsmen argued that victims deserved to have their cases resolved in court.

“Bail is about appearance (in court),” said Scott Hall, vice president of the Georgia Association of Professional Bondsmen. “We’re talking about people accused of crimes. Without (a court) appearance, justice will be denied. … If there’s a victim, that victim deserves their day in court. And when they show up in court, they have a right to expect the person accused of a crime to be there.”

But arguments from the other side of the debate came from familiar faces on the civil rights front — Joe Beasley, the Rev. Raphael Warnock of Ebenezer Baptist Church, and Atlanta NAACP Vice President Gerald Griggs.

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Griggs, who is also a defense attorney, said he has represented accused felons who were granted bond while people accused of city ordinance violations sat in jail.

“We’re talking about people who are merely sitting in the (Atlanta) Detention Center because they cannot afford to post bond,” Griggs said.

Former DeKalb County Chief Executive Officer Burrell Ellis told the council he had experienced the criminal justice system, alluding to his conviction in July 2015 on charges of trying to shake down a county contractor. Ellis served eight months in prison before the Georgia Supreme Court ruled in November 2016 that he had been denied a fair trial.

“The legislation before you does not allow the convicted to go free,” Ellis said. “It doesn’t allow those convicted of violent crimes to go free,” Ellis said. “I don’t discount anyone’s victimization. I was a victim myself. I was a victim of the criminal justice system…. The majority of those sitting in Georgia jails are presumed innocent.”