Why Georgia governor’s last criminal justice push may be his toughest


Gov. Nathan Deal may have saved one of the hardest parts of his plan to remake the criminal justice system for last.

With little opposition, the Republican spearheaded legislation over his two terms that kept more nonviolent offenders out of prison and set up a system of accountability courts.

But his proposal this week to give judges new flexibility to forgo cash bail for poor defendants has sparked opposition from law enforcement officials. One prominent sheriff even compared Deal to the devil in denouncing his plan.

For Deal, the cash bail proposal is a culmination of eight years of seismic changes to the judiciary. And, along with a tax relief plan he outlined this week, it's the most prominent item on the governor's legislative agenda.

The legislation, Senate Bill 407, would let judges consider a defendant's ability to pay in setting bail and give law enforcement officials more leeway to issue citations instead of criminal charges.

The legislation takes aim at a bail system that has come under increasing scrutiny in Georgia and across the nation. Civil rights groups claim jailing poor people simply because they lack money for bond is unconstitutional, and several lawsuits in Atlanta and elsewhere have challenged the practice.

But the changes go too far for some law enforcement groups. The Georgia Sheriffs’ Association has not yet taken a formal stance on the measure, but director Terry Norris said sheriffs have already bombarded him with their concerns.

One of the loudest is Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills, who implored his colleagues in an email to “vehemently” oppose the plan and painted Deal’s criminal justice overhaul as a dangerous erosion of law-and-order policies.

“NEVER, never, in this state’s history has the criminal element been coddled and fostered as it has been over the last 7 years,” wrote Sills, who confirmed to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he penned the email.

“This governor has done more for those who perpetrate crime than Lucifer and his demons combined,” he added, “and every piece of his criminal justice reform that has been passed into law has complicated or burdened our duties and/or endangered the citizenry of our state.”

The measure’s supporters quickly used those comments as a rallying cry, and several legislators from both parties took the floor of the House on Thursday to condemn Sills’ remarks. Republican Rep. Scot Turner, visibly upset, called on the Sheriffs’ Association to censure Sills.

“Are you serious? Because we treat people as human beings in the criminal justice system that we somehow are worse than Lucifer, than the devil?” he said. “That’s changing lives. That’s not worse than Satan.”

House Speaker David Ralston offered his own scathing rebuke.

“When I read those comments this morning, I got sick to my stomach. Few things in my public career have I found as disgusting and deplorable as that statement made by a man who wears a badge,” said Ralston. “They are wrong, and they are an embarrassment to an honorable profession.”

A final countdown

The legislative package released Wednesday is the final phase of Deal’s eight-year effort to remake the state’s criminal justice system.

He has championed earlier legislation to expand accountability courts, give judges more discretion over sentencing, divert more low-level offenders from costly prison beds and boost funding for re-entry programs for released inmates.

The governor and his supporters tout the changes as an unqualified success. His office said the state has saved $260 million in taxpayer funds for correctional costs over the last eight years, and the state's prison population — once projected to rise to 60,000 inmates — has declined to about 52,000 today. The number of African-Americans being locked up has plunged, too, to historic lows.

His last push targets the bail system.

The state now gives judges little flexibility in setting bail for most defendants. While the law allows judges to forgo bond for some defendants facing felonies, it requires judges to set bail for those facing misdemeanor charges.

“Consequently, the crucial question for misdemeanants in Georgia is not whether they will get bail, but the amount at which it will be set,” read a report published Wednesday from Deal’s Council on Criminal Justice Reform.

Deal cast his proposal as a way to help shift the state’s focus on “the most serious and violent offenders” while saving counties more taxpayer dollars. About 64 percent of inmates in Georgia jails are awaiting trial, and many of them are being held behind bars because they failed to pay bail.

The commission’s report and the legislation came a week after the Atlanta City Council approved an ordinance designed to eliminate cash bail for those accused of certain traffic offenses, nonviolent misdemeanors and ordinance violations.

And though it doesn’t go as far as the Atlanta ordinance, civil rights advocates were quick to applaud the governor’s proposal. But some want additional changes to require judges who set cash bail to put it in writing that the defendants can pay the amount.

“Otherwise, we’ll still have our two-tiered, pre-trial system in which people with money can buy their way out of jail while indigent people arrested for the same offense remain incarcerated pending trial,” said Sarah Geraghty of the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights.

A fight ahead

Deal is likely to face more pushback from law enforcement groups who are wary of loosening bail bond restrictions and concerned with other parts of the measure that limit some first-time offenders convicted of felonies to a year of probation.

Norris said his members intend to fight provisions that allow officers to issue citations for a range of misdemeanor offenses and the changes to the cash bail system. Other law enforcement groups, including the police chiefs and prosecutors associations, are vetting the legislation.

Frank Rotondo, head of the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police, said he’s in favor of releasing poor defendants accused of low-level crimes without posting cash bail “under certain circumstances” as long as they don’t pose a threat to society.

Some local officials are already on tense terms with Deal over his initiative last year that boosted state law enforcement pay by 20 percent but didn't include salary hikes for deputies or city police officers. Another sheriff, Butch Reece of Jones County, slammed "King Nathan" last year over the raises.

And though some owners of bail bond firms were involved in the council’s recommendations, the industry’s leaders seem likely to oppose the measure. The industry has given tens of thousands of dollars to Georgia politicians this cycle, including to Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, state Sen. David Shafer and the Georgia House Republican Trust.

A ‘more equitable’ system

A legal fight brewing in Georgia courtrooms also factors into the debate.

Atlanta lawmakers took action in part because of accounts of poor people sitting in jail for weeks and months because they couldn’t pay a bond set by the Atlanta Municipal Court. One homeless man, who had covered himself in 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.

And a federal lawsuit targeting the North Georgia town of Calhoun is pending in federal appeals court. It was brought by Maurice Walker, who was arrested on charges of public drunkenness while walking down a street, and has drawn heavyweights from both sides of the debate.

The governor’s commission nodded to the litigation in its report, and its members tried to build consensus on the changes before unveiling the legislation.

Several traveled to Kentucky to study that state’s recent bail overhaul, and they highlighted a recent study in that state finding that people held in jail for several days after their arrests were significantly more likely to be arrested on a new charge than people released on the first day.

And to win over some critics, the governor included a tough-on-crime provision that would increase prison sentences for some gun-related offenses. He said it provided some defendants with a second chance while shifting the focus to “the most serious and violent offenders.”

“These common-sense reforms lay the foundation for a more equitable criminal justice system,” Deal said, “and bring us another step forward in making Georgia a safer, more prosperous place to call home.”