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

Georgia lawmakers take aim at Atlanta’s cash bond ordinance

The city wants to keep poor, low-level offenders out of jail

An Atlanta ordinance designed to prevent low-level offenders from sitting in jail when they are too poor to post bond is in jeopardy under changes state lawmakers quietly added to a larger immigration enforcement bill.

The House Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee approved those changes to Senate Bill 452 Tuesday without discussing them during a lengthy hearing that instead focused on the immigration-related parts of the measure. Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, a Republican, backs the bill.

The changes say all defendants, including those accused of violating local ordinances, must be brought before a judge. That would hold true even if the court has a “bond schedule” allowing them to be released on their own recognizance as soon as they are brought to a local jail. Atlanta is the only Georgia city following such a system. It was adopted after reports by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and other news outlets of poor people sitting in jail for weeks or months because they could not afford to post bonds for crimes like begging for money or urinating in public.

“This is the epitome of unsavory behavior by politicians and lobbyists who attempt to pass sneaky bills that if appropriately considered, would face major opposition,” said Sara Totonchi, executive director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, which pushed for changes earlier this year in how the Atlanta Municipal Court operates.

Sara Totonchi, executive director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, stands outside the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in downtown Atlanta. ARTEM NAZAROV

Totonchi added that the revised version of the bill “would exacerbate wealth-based detention and prohibit local jurisdictions, like the City of Atlanta, from taking steps to increase fairness within local justice systems. This legislation is totally out of line with the deliberate, exhaustive examination of bail in Georgia that has been undertaken by judges, legislators, and community stakeholders over the last year.”

Committee Chairman Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, said the changes that his committee made to the bill “came out of the Senate as a proposal and I said ‘It ain’t a bad idea to add this.’” Declining to identify who asked for the changes, Powell said too often dangerous or wanted people have been released on their own recognizance without being vetted.

Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, is chairman of the committee that approved the changes. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“The committee members had the substitute in front of them. We did pass out copies to everybody. Nobody asked any questions,” Powell said.

Rep. Heath Clark, R-Warner Robins, the lawmaker who shepherded the changes through the committee, said he did not intentionally omit mentioning the revisions when he briefed the panel about other tweaks to the bill dealing with immigration enforcement.

Scott Hall, vice president of the Georgia Association of Professional Bondsmen, which aggressively opposed the change regarding the Atlanta Municipal Court, said his group did not push for the changes to SB 452.

Last 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. In that letter, the civil rights groups said the city could be sued if the practice continued. The groups sent a similar letter to Reed’s successor, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, once she took office.

01/02/2018 — Atlanta, GA, - Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance-Bottoms made changing the city’s cash bond system her first major initiative. ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Changing the bond system used by Atlanta Municipal Court was the first change Bottoms pushed in her new administration. She signed the ordinance in February, a little more than a month into her term. Bottoms’ office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

As originally drafted and then passed by the Senate in late February, SB 452 required police officers to detain unauthorized immigrants and transport them to federal detention centers. The House committee watered down that part of the bill Tuesday. It instead gave police the option to do those things.

The bill also requires Georgia courts to determine whether the defendants they are sentencing are legally in the country. If they are here without legal permission, the courts would then be required to order prosecutors to notify federal immigration authorities about them. Further, the committee inserted language requiring the state prison system to publish a report every 90 days that lists the immigration status and native countries of inmates who are not U.S. citizens. All those parts of the bill triggered impassioned discussions during Tuesday’s hearing.

Cagle’s office and the bill’s sponsor, Republican state Sen. Jesse Stone of Waynesboro, did not respond to requests for comment. As he prepared to explain his bill to the committee Tuesday, Stone said he was just seeing the House panel’s version for the first time.

The measure must still pass the full House and go back to the Senate to approve the changes.

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