Torpy at Large: When bail reform means you bail on returning to court

Atlanta Municipal Court.  Downtown Atlanta, Fulton County, Georgia.

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

Atlanta Municipal Court. Downtown Atlanta, Fulton County, Georgia.

The city of Atlanta this year allowed a lot more low-level offenders to be released on their own signature rather than having to scrounge up cash for bail.

But preliminary figures show many defendants aren’t worth their John Hancocks.

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Numbers mustered up by Atlanta Municipal Court Chief Judge Christopher Portis for a limited snapshot shows that 71 percent more defendants are skipping bond compared to last year. In June and July of 2017, 4,779 people failed to appear to court. This June and July, 8,182 did not show up.

“We are seeing an uptick of individuals who do not appear (in court), and then we see them on a repeat offense,” the judge recently told City Council members in a public safety committee hearing.

Now, it’s not like John Dillinger has been loosed on the public. These are largely society’s destitute, broken and misbegotten. They are people who were arrested mostly for nuisance crimes such as disorderly conduct, public drunkenness, begging or being bad motorists.

The move to ease up on cash bonds for municipal court cases came about after there were horror stories of defendants being jailed for months on charges such as begging and possession of pot. The hope was to alleviate the sense that the justice system was sticking it to those who are poor, homeless or have mental issues.

The ordinance was the first initiative of Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, passing the council unanimously.

“You will not be held in jail unfairly just because you don’t have the money (for bail),” she said when the initiative was passed.

This week, the mayor said the effort is still getting its kinks out. “Further, this administration has nearly doubled its commitment to funding of the pre-arrest diversion program in an effort to reach individuals before any potential criminal activity,” she said.

Atlanta officials said that after six months they would check to see how the law was working. This brought a roomful of activists to the recent meeting to make sure the city stayed on its more lenient course.

One thing the law has done is cut down the number of inmates in the city jail. This is either good or bad, depending on whether you’re a glass half-full or half-empty kind of person.

Atlanta jail chief Patrick Labat said the jail’s average daily population fell from 439 in February to 249 in July and 137 on Sept. 24. Part of that is because the mayor signed an executive order that no longer allows the feds to keep new immigration detainees there.

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms on Thursday signed an executive order calling for all remaining U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees to be transferred out of the city jail as soon as possible

Portis said the court handled 70,000 cases (most are traffic charges) between June and mid-September. Of that, judges heard about 2,000 cases with a defendant in custody.

Once in court, two-thirds are eligible for signature bond or had their cases closed in the hearing, he said. The remaining third are DUIs, cases with an element of violence or defendants with multiple open charges.

“This isn’t the working poor we’re dealing with on a regular basis,” Portis said. They are largely homeless, mentally ill or drug abusers.

If someone misses court, they are sent a postcard. If they don’t show up, a warrant is signed. But there’s a problem, the judge acknowledged. “A lot of them don’t have good addresses.”

Because they are homeless!

Homelessness in Atlanta The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, requires the city conduct a count of the homeless population every two years. Atlanta gathers the data each year in a time-consuming process that involves both counting individuals on the street and working with local agencies who may also work with the homeless. In January 2017, the homeless population in Atlanta was 3,572, including nearly 700 who were on the streets, rather than a shelter or transitional housing, a

Councilman Michael Julian Bond told me the ordinance is flawed because many people don’t show up in court — they have no cash incentive to do so.

“Also, people who are victims aren’t getting relief,” Bond said. “It’s a sad irony that the victims and perpetrators come from the same circumstances. The reality is the people living next door (to those arrested) are calling law enforcement for relief.”

The presentations brought some harsh criticisms.

Tiffany Williams Roberts, an attorney for the Southern Center for Human Rights, the org that pushed the city to consider the law, said “What we have seen is a choreographed sabotage of a bail reform ordinance that is conservative.”

She called the city’s presentation “talking points from the Confederate playbook,” apparently referring to Labat’s presentation that talked about using prisoners to pick up trash. (Labat says such service is voluntary.)

“This is a misdirection,” Roberts said. “It is deception to suggest violent offenders are benefiting from the ordinance.”

Scales of Justice

Credit: Visions of America

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Credit: Visions of America

Mary Hooks, co-director of the group Southerners On New Ground, gave an impassioned speech to end public comment.

“I thought we came to do this work to do something different, not take the master’s tools and oppress our people!” she said. “We need to do something different.”

I went this week to check out how things rolled at Municipal Court.

Judge Portis, who handles cases with defendants who are locked up, reminded me of Hawkeye Pierce conducting surgery in the MASH unit.

In 70 minutes he heard 27 cases. Many had failures to appear. Twenty-five defendants were black. Probably half were homeless. Almost as many were wanted by other agencies.

Figures from the Atlanta jail on the impact of the move to cut down on the number of cases with cash bail.

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Pedestrian solicitation. Shoplifting. Public indecency. Pot possession. A beef with MARTA. Obstruction of an officer. Disorderly conduct courtroom. Walking on the highway. Etc., etc., etc.

It was like the judge was a man standing on the seashore watching motley human waves roll into his courtroom.

As he finished each case, he wished them good luck.

Upstairs on the sixth floor, Judge Gary Jackson fumbled with the slow computer, quickly knocking out walk-in cases, mostly traffic charges. (It seems the Atlanta Police Department is doing bang-up work enforcing that new cellphone law.)

One smallish woman was there for a charge I couldn’t hear. I did glean that she had a “failure to appear” in her recent past and was dealing with homelessness and drug abuse.

“I know you’ve had problems for a long time,” Judge Jackson said. He said he would waive probation fees and sentence the woman to community service because it was evident she could no sooner pay the $100 fine than she could fly a Delta jet.

”Ma’am, I don’t have the tools to help you,” he said before she walked out of court. “But we have to be more creative. I don’t have all the answers. Solomon I’m not.”