Georgia legislators try to kill bail reform and require jail for the poor

Georgia state Sen. Bill Cowsert (left) and state Rep. Micah Gravley sponsored legislation that would repeal recent reforms and require cash bail. (Photos from the legislature's website.)

Earlier this week, Georgia legislators introduced a bill that would reverse reforms in Atlanta and other cities in the state that allow defendants accused of nonviolent misdemeanors to remain free before their trials, regardless of whether they can post cash bail. 

When Republican Rep. Micah Gravley of Douglasville introduced the bill during a committee hearing, he was flanked by representatives of the bail bonds industry. The Southern Center for Human Rights, which sues cities over unconstitutional bail practices, said that Gravley turned the meeting over to the industry representatives, who "dominated the discussion and misled the committee, at times outright lying." 

The Georgia NAACP criticized the bail bond industry for lobbying "against ending cash bail so that they can continue to profit from people … who are often poor." Other critics of the bill called it a betrayal of a bipartisan bail reform law signed into law a year ago by former Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican. That law gave local authorities more flexibility to avoid incarcerating those who couldn't afford cash bail. Former state legislator Stacey Abrams, the 2018 Democratic nominee for governor, called the new bill "a clear indication that our state is moving backward on criminal justice reform." 

Last year, when Atlanta Mayor Keisha Bottoms announced the city's bail reforms, she told residents, "You will not be held in jail unfairly just because you don't have the money." The city's municipal courts previously required cash bail for any offense. Some defendants reported pleading guilty just to get out of jail without a cash payment. In 2016, Atlanta spent around $700,000 to incarcerate 890 people just because they couldn't afford bail.

A much smaller Georgia city, Calhoun, reformed its bail rules after a lawsuit filed by Maurice Walker, a 54-year-old man whose only income is Social Security disability payments. Walker was arrested on Labor Day weekend in 2015 for walking "under the influence of alcohol," and authorities refused to release him unless he posted a $160 cash bond. Because of the holiday, Walker would have sat in jail for 11 days before he appeared in court. 

After the lawsuit was filed, Walker was released, and the city stopped automatically requiring cash bail for certain offenses. The bill in the Georgia legislature would also undo Calhoun's reforms, according to the Southern Center for Human Rights, which represented Walker. 

Long-overdue reforms

Critics across the political spectrum argue that insisting on cash bail discriminates against the poor and people of color, in addition to draining public resources. "For hundreds of thousands of arrestees every year, the difference between freedom and jail depends solely on wealth status," according to Equal Justice Under Law, a group that sues local governments to stop wealth-based discrimination. "An arrestee who is poor must stay in jail for days, weeks, months, or years until her case resolves."

The pending Georgia bill stands in sharp contrast to the recent trend — in progressive and conservative states — of common-sense criminal justice reforms. Communities across the South, including Durham, Houston, Nashville, and New Orleans, have limited or ended the use of cash bail. 

Many of these cities were responding to court orders or threatened lawsuits. Several federal courts, including the conservative 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that hears cases from Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas, have recently ruled that detaining arrestees simply because they can't post bail is unconstitutional. In striking down Houston's bail policy, the 5th Circuit said that "the wealthy arrestee is less likely to plead guilty, more likely to receive a shorter sentence or be acquitted, and less likely to bear the social costs of incarceration. The poor arrestee, by contrast, must bear the brunt of all of these, simply because he has less money."

The Texas legislature is considering a bill to require judges to use individualized risk assessments. If the assessment shows that the defendant isn't a threat and will likely appear for trial, the defendant wouldn't have to post cash bail. 

Voters in Atlanta and other Southern cities have also recently elected prosecutors and sheriffs who campaigned on reform. In November, North Carolina's seven largest counties elected reform-minded black sheriffs, and Durham's new prosecutor, Satana Deberry, campaigned on a pledge to use more alternatives to cash bail. The November 2018 "blue wave" also brought a racially diverse group of reform-minded judges to courts in Houston, Texas, where the incumbent judges had resisted court orders to stop incarcerating people because they couldn't pay for bail.

Despite these trends, the Georgia bill illustrates that state legislatures still have the power to preempt local reforms. Conservative legislatures, particularly in the South, have passed a range of laws in recent years to end local reforms that protected civil rights, increased the minimum wage, and cleaned up the environment. The Partnership for Working Families, a network of racial and economic justice advocates, noted that such laws are "often passed by predominantly white legislatures blocking laws benefiting and supported by majority communities of color."

When legislators in other states were considering bail reform, campaign contributions from the bail bonds industry poured in. In Georgia, 24/7 All Bail Bonds gave thousands of dollars to Republican candidates last year, according to Free at Last Bail Bonds has given more than $15,000 over the years to Georgia candidates, mostly Democrats. And the Georgia Association of Professional Bondsmen has contributed tens of thousands of dollars to Republican state legislators, including Sen. Bill Cowsert, the primary sponsor of the Senate version of Gravley's anti-reform bill, and Sen. Steve Gooch, a co-sponsor.