Last year, the state legislature made great strides in bail reform in our state by passing a bipartisan bill requiring judges to consider an individual’s ability to pay when setting bail. This happened around the same time as Atlanta’s city council restricted cash bail on low level offenses. However, all of this progress is under attack. House Bill 340 bill would block cities from eliminating a cash bond requirement for some low-level offenders. It would empower judges in any court to include “violations of local ordinances” in written guidelines for bail amounts required for those charged with specific crimes, bar anyone charged with a felony from being on his or her recognizance. It would also not allow those charged to be released from jail before appearances before a judge.
Cash bond has already been recognized as a predatory and not a beneficial practice in some state legislatures, like California and Kansas. Cash bond is an entire industry that essentially preys on low-income communities. It forces defendants to pay to get out of jail, even before trial, which violates one of the most fundamental beliefs of the American legal system: ‘innocent until proven guilty’. According to a study cited by The Guardian, approximately 65% of the people in local jails are there awaiting trial simply because they cannot afford the bail to get out.1 The problems with the cash bail system are further aggregated by the bail bond industry. The bail bond industry takes in 2 billion dollars a year by exploiting poor individuals desperate to get out of jail. Defendants are faced with the choice of signing agreements and setting up payment plans with bails bondsman or staying in prison. If a person cannot afford the bail to get out of jail when they are arrested, it is highly unlikely that they will be able to successfully pay back the bail amount with the interest rates associated.
Individuals who have commited low level offenses are 40% more likely to be repeat offenders than those held for 24 hours or less.2 Even a small amount of time in jail can derail the lives of our most vulnerable populations. If you work in fast food or at another similar low wage jobs, not showing up for 3 days means you’re fired. If you’re in a drug rehab program, missing a day may mean losing your housing. Cash bond for low level offenses as a whole burdens the poor disproportionately, and doesn’t really offer increased public security.
House Bill 340 is a step in the wrong direction. This bill would stop the progress Athens and other municipalities have made to reform their bail practices and create a more equitable criminal justice system. It would also take away the current state wide regulations on bail sentencing, and be a dramatic step back in our states move toward real and meaningful criminal justice reform.