Senate approves bill to require cash bail for more offenses

Bill would add dozens of additional charges when cash must be paid
State Sen. Randy Robertson, R-Catalula, sponsor of Senate Bill 63, regarding bonds and bails, gives a thumbs up following a vote on the bill in the Senate at the Capitol in Atlanta on Thursday, February 1, 2024. (Arvin Temkar/arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

State Sen. Randy Robertson, R-Catalula, sponsor of Senate Bill 63, regarding bonds and bails, gives a thumbs up following a vote on the bill in the Senate at the Capitol in Atlanta on Thursday, February 1, 2024. (Arvin Temkar/arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

After years of leading the country in stepping away from “tough on crime” policies and steering offenders toward rehabilitation, the Georgia Senate on Thursday passed legislation rolling back one of those key changes.

The Senate approved a measure on a 30-17 that adds dozens of new offenses, such as trespassing and failure to appear in court for a traffic citation, that would require cash bail to be released.

The bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Randy Robertson, a Cataula Republican and former Muscogee County sheriff’s deputy, said the bill aims to ensure that people who have been arrested and released on bond return for their trial. Robertson, who is chairman of a committee studying issues at the Fulton County Jail, said data provided by the sheriff’s office in Atlanta shows that overcrowding is not an issue.

“Once we started looking into the jails, what we found out is a lot of the individuals — the vast, vast majority, based on statistics received from jails — are (in jail) for violent felonies or those trafficking in drugs or participate in gang activities,” Robertson said. “Our county jails are not overpopulated with misdemeanants who cannot afford to make bond.”

Republicans are trying to counter efforts across the country during the past decade to move away from requiring people arrested on certain nonviolent misdemeanor charges to pay money to bond out of jail. Some criminal justice advocates say it is unfair for people to end up staying in jail for long periods only because they are unable to pay a cash bond.

State Sen. Kim Jackson, D-Stone Mountain, speaks on Senate Bill 63, regarding bonds and bails, in the Senate at the Capitol in Atlanta on Thursday, February 1, 2024. (Arvin Temkar/arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

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Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

State Sen. Kim Jackson, a Pine Lake Democrat and Episcopal priest whose church works with people who are homeless, said she’s worried that adding crimes to the list of charges that force someone to pay a cash bail to get out of jail — after being arrested for something such as trespassing — will disproportionately affect the indigent community.

“When the weather drops down below 30-something degrees, people who sleep outside are often forced to make a calculus about how they might receive shelter, and this bill actually encourages them to make the calculus that is actually safer for them to get arrested and to have an assurance of a cot and three meals than it is to, perhaps, go and bear the brunt of the cold,” Jackson said.

Some Republican lawmakers have singled out for criticism Democratic Athens-Clarke County District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez for her decision not to prosecute certain low-level crimes.

Gonzalez was also cited as the impetus behind the Republican-led Legislature passing a bill last year that created a Prosecuting Attorneys Qualifications Commission with the power to discipline local prosecutors accused of failing to fulfill their legal duties.

State Sen. Josh McLaurin, D-Atlanta, said the bail bill is a reversal of one of former Gov. Nathan Deal’s last legislative pushes as governor in 2018, his final session before he left office. Deal spent much of his time as governor working to overhaul the criminal justice system by focusing primarily on steering more nonviolent offenders from prison cells to treatment centers.

In 2018, lawmakers passed legislation that 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 for low-level offenses. It passed both chambers unanimously, with many of the senators who voted for that measure now backing Robertson’s bill.

McLaurin said pretrial detention should not be used as punishment, but Georgians arrested should be held in jail pending trial only if they pose a danger or are likely to flee.

“Every day that a person spends in jail is a day they’re not at their job, that they’re not raising their kids,” McLaurin said. “When you take that person out of their routine and their place and you take away their support, you take away their ability to solve these problems themselves. You can’t pull yourself up by the bootstraps if by statute we take away the bootstraps.”

The House is expected to approve the measure next week, sending Robertson’s Senate Bill 63 to Gov. Brian Kemp for his signature.

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