Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms has faced her fair share of criticism during her tenure as Atlanta’s chief executive, including her decision to cancel Atlanta’s beloved Peach Drop last New Year’s Eve. Even so, she’s also taken some laudable steps that deserve praise – especially in the realm of criminal justice reform.
She reformed the city’s cash bail model and inked legislation to close the Atlanta City Jail as an incarceral institution. While some denounced these decisions, other municipalities could learn a thing or two from Mayor Bottoms. In fact, her moves were smart, cost-saving measures during times of normalcy, but they seem downright prescient now that we are facing a pandemic.
In February of 2018, Mayor Bottoms enacted her landmark bail reform legislation, which essentially waived cash bonds for underprivileged individuals accused of petty, nonviolent offenses. Mayor Bottoms’ reform doesn’t, however, extend to those charged with violent crimes. Period. Rather, it applies to those accused of minor infractions, like those “charged with some traffic offenses and nuisance offenses such as begging,” according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, and rightly so. Those who cannot afford to post bail often languish in jail until their court date, regardless of their guilt or severity of their crime, which we’ve seen right here in Atlanta.
Back in 2017, a homeless man was arrested in Atlanta for panhandling. He was standing near the Capitol holding a sign that read “homeless, please help.” Following his arrest, the Atlanta Municipal Court set his bond at $200, which the man obviously couldn’t afford. As a result, he sat in jail for around two and a half months until he received pro bono legal aid. This isn’t the first instance of jailing the poor either.
Another man was arrested in 2017 in Atlanta for screaming at a gas station’s patrons. He was covered in fecal matter, clearly mentally ill, and poverty-stricken. Despite this, the Atlanta Municipal Court assigned a bond of $500. This was beyond his means, and as a result, he stayed in jail for months.
The problems with the cash bail system are manifold. As these examples demonstrate, it punishes the poor and consequently keeps them in jail for indefinite periods of time. What’s more, studies have revealed that the longer someone remains in jail – regardless of their ultimate verdict – the more likely they are to commit a crime when they are released. While incarcerated, people’s characters can change, they can learn criminal behavior, and they risk losing their jobs and homes. In fact, research shows that supporting commonsense bail reforms means supporting a system that reduces crime.
Bail reforms can also result in massive savings. It can cost roughly $1,000 a month to house someone in a local jail in Georgia, and the expenses add up quickly. Yet, partially thanks to Mayor Bottoms’ bail reforms, the Atlanta City Jail’s population began to dwindle. Indeed, by early last year, only around 150 of the facility’s 1,300 beds were occupied on any given day, and the detainees were largely there for allegedly violating city ordinances or committing traffic offenses. It became clear that the jail probably wasn’t necessary, and simply keeping it open bore high operational costs with little resulting benefits. As such, in May 2019, Mayor Bottoms decided it was time to end the building’s use as a jail.
The Mayor’s criminal justice reforms will ultimately help reduce crime and save money, but in the coronavirus’ wake, they serve another benefit as well. COVID-19 has swept across the country and infected countless Americans. However, some segments of the population and environments have proven more susceptible than others.
Indeed, incarceral facilities have been ravaged by the virus, and it’s easy to see why. Myriad individuals – many of whom have underlying health issues – are packed into close quarters where social distancing is virtually impossible, and the results have been overwhelmingly negative. This has been a problem in Georgia, but it could get much worse. The Federal Bureau of Prisons found that 70 percent of inmates who have been tested were positive for COVID-19, and many will certainly die. Of course, the aforementioned infection rate is related to prisons, not jails, but the same risks exist there too.
In the end, if those in local jails haven’t been convicted, pose no danger, and aren’t a flight risk, then they should not be kept in an infectious environment. Keeping them there will simply promote the spread of COVID-19, increase the taxpayer burden, and potentially result in more crime. To support such an outcome seems ridiculous, but this is far less of an issue in Atlanta now – though not without some possible hiccups. Nevertheless, other mayors should take notice of the benefits.
Marc Hyden is the Director of State Government Affairs at the R Street Institute, and he is a long-time Georgia resident. You can follow him on Twitter @marc_hyden.