Cash bail as we know it may be slowly becoming a thing of the past here in Georgia. Last year, then-Gov. Nathan Deal signed a bill permitting judges to take defendants’ income into account when setting bail, and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms approved an ordinance eliminating cash bail for certain nonviolent, low-level offenders. The momentum to reform the bail system has continued into 2019: Just days ago, the Athens-Clarke County government decided it will no longer require bail for numerous petty violations of local ordinances.
Many on the political left and right have heralded these reforms as strides toward a more just system, but not everyone shares their excitement. Earlier this year, a few lawmakers tried to curtail these landmark reforms. Fortunately, their efforts came up short, but it remains to be seen whether there will be a renewed push to rework bail statutes in the 2020 legislative session. While many laws admittedly require updating, effectively abolishing these bail reforms would be a grave mistake that must be resisted.
For years, states have heavily relied on cash bail systems. In theory, judges are supposed to set bail amounts relative to an individual’s flight risk and the severity of their alleged crimes. When the accused posts bail, they are release from jail. Because they can recoup their bail when they return for their court date, the bail paid serves as leverage to ensure that the accused shows up on that date. While this paradigm may sound logical on its face, in reality, it adversely affects the underprivileged, leads to more crime, and overburdens taxpayers.
For starters, the cash bail system punishes poverty. After all, people who are more affluent can afford to post bail, but those who cannot must languish in jail until their court date — often regardless of the seriousness of the alleged crime or their innocence. In fact, over 75 percent of those in jail haven’t been convicted of the crime for which they are incarcerated, and many of these infractions amount to petty offenses. What’s more, the time elapsed between arrest and sentencing can range from a few months to over a year in some misdemeanor cases. During this time, the accused obviously cannot work, meaning that they risk losing their job and, oftentimes as a result, their vehicle and their home.
Time spent in jail as defendants wait for a court date also increases the likelihood that they will be re-arrested upon release. Those who remain in jail for over 24 hours are 17 percent more likely to be re-arrested within two years than those who are released within 24 hours — and the re-arrest rate surges from there. Indeed, those held in jail for two weeks are 51 percent likelier to wind up in jail again than those who were released earlier. The reasons for this are clear: People learn bad behaviors while incarcerated, they can be traumatized by their experiences in jail, and they are often subject to financial hardships upon their release. The culmination of these issues means that these individuals are more prone to returning to jail than those who are quickly released on their own recognizance.
The cash bail system takes its toll on the public, too. On average, there are roughly 39,000 people housed in Georgia’s local jails — many of whom are too poor to make bail and are simply awaiting their court date. It can easily cost around $1,000 a month to house each person in local jails, which translates to an annual bill of almost a half-billion dollars that taxpayers must foot. Clearly, much of this financial burden could be reduced if more cities adopted Atlanta’s and Athens-Clarke County’s approach, which limits the local jail population.
Given all of this, if the accused are not deemed a risk of any kind, then there is hardly any excuse to require bail for petty misdemeanors. In fact, there is an immense upside to releasing individuals on their own recognizance. As such, Georgians ought to be wary of any proposal to roll back the progress made on bail reform.
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