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Ordinance to End Cash Bail is a Win for Atlanta Activists

Advocates have pushed for Atlanta to end the requirement of cash bail for nonviolent offenses.

Source: public domain pictures

The Atlanta City Council voted unanimously yesterday to end the requirement of cash bail for certain nonviolent offenses. The ordinance amends Chapter 62 of the City of Atlanta Code and will take effect 30 days after Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms signed the ordinance into law today.

The Chief of Corrections is tasked with monitoring the results of the ordinance. Within six months of the mayor’s approval, the chief must report their findings to the Public Safety Committee of the Atlanta City Council in a public presentation.

A lengthy discussion took place yesterday regarding public safety, interests of alleged victims, and dismantling a system of wealth inequality. The final vote was unanimous, but not all council members were committed to justice and equity.

Council’s deliberations included much discussion as to which offenses or circumstances may give rise to cash bail. District 6 Councilwoman Jennifer N. Ide proposed an amendment addressing the offenses considered “containing an element of violence or threatened violence.” Ide challenged the council to think about the way it was defining violent acts.

In her amendment, Ide proposed that several offenses not be subject to cash bail, including Disorderly Conduct-Use of Fighting Words and Disorderly Conduct-Act of Violence toward property. In explaining why these offenses should not be subject to cash bail, Ide reiterated that she was concerned about perpetuating a system of wealth inequality whereby those detained are there merely because they cannot pay.

City Solicitor Raines Carter noted, while clarifying some of the offenses proposed for removal from the section retaining cash bond, that police officers often exercise discretion as to whether individuals are charged on a lesser municipal offense where a state-level offense may exist.

Ide further proposed amending language in this section regarding offenses that the Chief of Corrections “reasonably believes involve violence or the threat of violence” specifically involving a person or other persons. She took care to note the difference between alleged violence directed at other people and alleged violence directed at property. Ide also added to the list of offenses, including those involving a domestic violence citation or solicitation for an illicit sexual act. She also proposed that cash bond be permissible if an individual is serving probation or on parole. Her amended language passed 10-3.

While the overall ordinance passed 13-0, not everyone supported it enthusiastically.

Although he voted for the ordinance, Councilman Michael Julian Bond referenced the need to strike a “balance” between consideration of “victims” and those of indigent defendants. Bond suggested that the organizers, coalition partners, and others who stood in support of this effort were not members of the communities in need of relief. In council chambers, he warned that “these activists won’t be here when the phone rings, whether it is about drugs [or] public indecency, and people in the community are going to want relief.”

Bond clearly does not care that many of the people who spoke on behalf of and advocated for this ordinance are, in fact, members of that community. Yes, the community wants relief. That relief includes dismantling a system that punishes people who can’t post bond. That relief includes making sure members of the community are not put in even more dire situations. But Bond and opponents who provided public comment against the ordinance continue to reference offenses and scenarios that fall outside the purview of this effort as an attempt to undermine progress.

Ahead of the final council vote, Bond reiterated concerns raised earlier over Failure to Appear (FTA) rates by Scott Hall of the Georgia Association of Professional Bondsmen. However, information provided during public comment suggests that this “concern” over FTAs and the end of cash bail for certain offenses is not supported by evidence. Attorney Marissa Dotson, public policy director at the Southern Center for Human Rights, explained that there is no correlation between money bond and FTA. She gave the example of findings from a Gwinnett County Study that providing additional administrative measures, including additional notice, could decrease FTAs.

Dotson also corrected misinformation from the bail bond industry regarding other places that have looked to end cash bail, including Harris County, Texas. The situation in Harris County is the result of ongoing litigation and has resulted in admonishment of judges and magistrates by a federal court.

As we look forward and build on the amazing groundwork by the local coalition of community-based organizations committed to ending money bond, we must not forget those who are stood on the wrong side of justice. It is clear from the organizers, attorneys, and supporters who spoke during the public comment period that this is only the first step toward equity in the city and, hopefully, the state. The opposition isn’t going to take this defeat sitting down, so we need to be prepared to continue to support these efforts.

A conversation regarding the budget and providing needed services for indigent defendants may be coming down the pipeline. Councilman Ivory Young Jr. raised that concern ahead of the council’s vote. It would be interesting if a portion of this budgeting process were participatory, allowing for direct community engagement.

The changes to cash bail that City Council approved apply only to municipal offenses in Atlanta. The process by which the cash bail requirement was ended is a good example of people-driven power. But we need to keep pushing for reform at the state level. Lobbyists for the bail bondsmen and corrections industry will not let up.

This is a labor of love, and we must all find a way to support it. The other side may have well-paid lobbyists, but we have strong advocates and fierce voices for justice.

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