PolitiFact: Abrams stretches point on poor jail inmates

Stacey Abrams says Georgia must change its criminal justice system so that people are not kept in jail just because they can’t pay for bail.

People with money “can artfully navigate the criminal justice system and maybe even avoid it altogether,” but those who are poor are often overwhelmed by the system, said Abrams, a former Georgia House minority leader who’s running for governor.

Recent state data indicate that about 64 percent of people in Georgia jails are awaiting trial. It’s unclear how many of them could not pay for bail, but experts said this is the case for many people nationwide and in other states.

As of December 2017, there were 37,340 inmates in jail in Georgia, according to a county jail inmate population report published by the Georgia Department of Community Affairs. And 64 percent of them were awaiting trial, the document said. (A more recent population report with inmate data as of Jan. 4 shows a slightly lower inmate count, but the share awaiting trial remains 64 percent.)

That tracks with a February 2018 report from the Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform. It said also that as of early 2018, 64 percent of all jail inmates were awaiting trial.

Abrams' campaign also pointed to 2015 data published by Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit group trying to end mass incarceration. Its data showed that more than 50 percent of people in Georgia jails in 2015 were awaiting trial.

Those statistics don’t necessarily back up Abrams’ point because of her word choice.

Claiming that most of those in local jails “have never been convicted of crime,” could be false, noted William Sabol, a professor in criminal justice and criminology in the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University: Some of those inmates may have had prior convictions.

The Georgia state report did not indicate how many people were jailed because they could not pay for bail. For this part of the claim, Abrams’ team referenced a national study.

Several experts told us they did not have Georgia-specific data on individuals who could not afford bail, but did not dispute the likelihood of Georgia mirroring trends nationwide and from other states.

A 2016 national report from Prison Policy Initiative said that most people who can't meet bail "fall within the poorest third of society."

Using Bureau of Justice Statistics data and in 2015 dollars, the report said, people in jail had a median annual income of $15,109 before their incarceration, or less than half (48 percent) of the median for people of similar ages who were not in jail.

Still, financial constraints aren’t the only reasons some people remain in jail before conviction, said Sabol, the Georgia State University professor.

“Some offenders are detained without bail or with bail set at very, very high amounts because they are perceived to be a danger to the community (preventive detention) or the seriousness of the crime was such that bail was denied,” Sabol said. “That is a different issue from an inability to pay bail.”

In Georgia, bail may be denied under certain circumstances to those charged with felonies, but judges are legally prohibited from denying pretrial bail to people charged with a misdemeanor, said the report from the Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform.

“Consequently, the crucial question for misdemeanants in Georgia is not whether they will get bail, but the amount at which it will be set,” the report said.

Our ruling

State data show most people in county jails are awaiting trial. The state report did not indicate how many people were jailed because they could not afford bail. Experts told us that based on national trends, it’s possible many Georgians in jail are there because they cannot pay for bail for current charges.

With those caveats, we rate Abrams' statement Half True.

“The majority of Georgians incarcerated in local jails have never been convicted of crime. They are simply too poor to pay their bail.”

— Stacey Abrams on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018 in campaign website