Just yesterday afternoon, the Atlanta City Council passed a historic bail reform ordinance. The adopted proposal, which will take effect in 30 days, will give the Atlanta Detention Center the authority to release people if they are charged with nonviolent misdemeanors or city ordinance violations while they wait for their case to be heard in court.
This is a moment of celebration, and a moment of reckoning. Whether or not you are in jail before trial should not depend on your ability to pay for your freedom, and yet in so many parts of the country, that remains the status quo. And the status quo – cash bails – is not working for the system overall. While cash bails may be an effective tool for criminal defendants with means, they don’t work for the poor who are locked up, and they don’t work for society or taxpayers either. Too often. impoverished suspects who pose no real threat to society (they are often accused of nuisance offenses, such as urinating in public or trespassing) are left in jail for months simply because they can’t afford bail.
Cash bails also have negative effects on society: A recent study of misdemeanor pretrial detention in Harris County, Texas, suggests that the use of cash bails actually increases risks to public safety. I have a firsthand sense of why this might be the case.
A little over a year ago, I helped lead a bail project in Baltimore, Maryland, which at that time predominantly used cash bails to ensure people showed up to court. Every day, I went to the city’s central booking, received my stack of cases, and tried to convince judge after judge that cash bails were ineffective and, moreover, that keeping someone incarcerated simply because he or she was poor was unconstitutional.
I watched firsthand as client’s lives fell apart because they couldn’t afford the $2500 bail (operating at 10 percent) on a low-level misdemeanor charge or nuisance crime. For much of society, $250 is an inconvenience. For my clients, staying in jail even for a few days meant losing their homes, jobs and children. It is no surprise then that cash bails can reduce public safety: unemployment is a key indicator in predicting whether individuals will commit another crime.
Cash bails have since been deprioritized in Maryland, meaning the Court of Appeals has stated that money alone no longer determines whether Marylanders are jailed or free before standing trial. The harms of money bail, however, remain. Unable to afford high cash bails, many of my clients’ families were driven in desperation to the bail bondsman industry and, as a result, will be paying their bails off for years to come.
The unfortunate reality for poor people across America is that being detained prior to trial has more to do with how much you make and not whether you are actually a public safety risk. Jurisdictions are finally realizing the cash bail system is inefficient, ineffective and unfair. Detaining people who are not a public safety risk is incredibly expensive. Instead, GPS monitoring, automated court date reminders and pretrial supervision are more appropriate remedies for fulfilling public safety goals and ensuring clients come to court. Those individuals who are truly a risk to public safety should remain detained.
Earlier this month, the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta joined Civil Rights Corps, based in Washington, D.C., in sending a letter to Atlanta’s new mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, asking her to lead a change in the city’s bail system. Ms. Bottoms answered the call.
I am reminded of Malcolm Gladwell’s tipping point: "The moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point." We are seeing the tipping point in motion, and it is incredible to watch. Chicago, Nashville, Birmingham and New Orleans have already abandoned pre-set cash bonds for certain low-level crimes. Jurisdiction after jurisdiction is rejecting the use of cash bail. For those in Atlanta who have suffered under the cash bail system, and for those who are still suffering, the change cannot come soon enough.