Gov. Nathan Deal has focused much of his attention while in office on criminal justice. Now in his final year of office, Deal signed a bill into law Monday that allows judges to avoid setting bail for poor defendants charged with nonviolent crimes. ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Georgia governor signs bail overhaul into law

Gov. Nathan Deal reflected Monday on his years-long goal to overhaul the state’s criminal justice system before signing legislation that allows judges to avoid requiring poor defendants charged with nonviolent crimes to pay a cash bail.

“We have made the lives of many people much better,” Deal, in his last year in office, said Monday of changes to the criminal justice system. “We have given people second chances that would not have otherwise under the old system have had those second chances.”

The measure, Senate Bill 407, requires judges to consider a defendant’s financial status when setting bail and allows law enforcement officers to issue citations instead of filing criminal charges.

The governor said the change would shift the state’s focus toward “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 are held behind bars because they failed to pay bail.

“Some of these individuals are sitting in jail cells for a very, very long time,” Deal said.

The legislation is the last part of a broader initiative Deal launched shortly after his 2010 election that gave judges more discretion over sentencing, shifted low-level offenders from costly prison beds and boosted funding for transition programs for newly released inmates.

But there is more to be done, Deal said, including changes to “excessively long” mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines for more serious crimes and the amount of time an inmate must serve before being considered for parole. Those things will be a “heavy lift,” he said.

This year, Deal faced pushback from law enforcement groups who are wary of loosening bail bond restrictions — one prominent law enforcement official compared the governor to Lucifer — but it passed the Legislature by an overwhelming margin.

The state previously allowed judges little flexibility in setting bail for most defendants. While the law allowed judges to forgo bond for some defendants facing felonies, it required judges to set bail for those facing misdemeanor charges.

SB 407 was adopted amid a broader movement to change bail rules, spurred by lawsuits from civil rights groups claiming that jailing poor people because they lack money for bond is unconstitutional.

The city of Atlanta in February approved new citywide restrictions on cash bonds.

Deal said he was amazed by the success of the changes that have been implemented to the state’s criminal justice system.

Between 2009 and 2017, the number of people committed to Georgia’s prison system dropped 18.6 percent. Last year, annual commitments to state prisons reached the lowest number since 2002.

Deal also highlighted the changes to what he said was a disproportionate representation of black men and women in the prison system.

While prison admissions have dropped almost 19 percent in the past eight years, the incarceration of black inmates fell by 30 percent. And the number of black inmates entering the prison system last year was at its lowest level in decades.

“I didn’t know what we were going to be able to do when we started this undertaking,” Deal said. “I had no idea that we would be this successful. I had hopes, I had dreams, but the reality is we exceeded even the hopes and the dreams.”

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Greg Bluestein contributed to this article.