The purpose of a bond is to assure that the defendants will return to court to face pending charges. In recent days there have been multiple news stories about people– usually poor people of color– who have languished in the Atlanta or Fulton County jail for low-level misdemeanor offenses because their limited financial resources do not allow them to bond out.
Not only does our current cash bond system for misdemeanors reek of “pay to play” justice, it creates additional stress on our already overburdened jails. It costs $77 per day to keep someone in the Fulton County jail whether they are a murderer or being held for public drunkenness.
In many cases, a defendant with financial resources arrested on a charge like disorderly conduct would be out of jail in a matter of hours. But a poor person charged with the same offense can remain in jail for days simply because they can’t post bail. These poorest residents often work low-wage jobs without vacation time or other fringe benefits. Therefore, they are highest risk for losing their employment, their homes, and even their families due to lengthy jail stays.
The cash bail system was originally implemented to incentivize a defendant’s return to court after they were arrested and released. But today it is applied as an automatic condition of release, without considering alternatives.
Cities and counties around the nation are looking at better options for poor defendants who commit low-level offenses. Practices like signature bonds for low-level offenses, conditional release with appropriate levels of supervision, and others can mitigate the impact of court involvement on human lives and save public dollars. Those dollars could instead be spent on intervention programs to help the very people who are being hurt by the current system.
Certainly, there must be consideration of the defendant’s history and risk to commit felonies and violent offenses as well as a more robust system would need to continue for those facing felony charges. All across Fulton County, citizens tell me they want the jail to be used to keep dangerous and violent criminals off the streets.
I believe the time is right for County commissioners and justice leaders to join together with city leaders and state lawmakers to ultimately create policies that end the cash bail for low-level, nonviolent offenses.