Reforming Georgia’s Cash Bail System

A terrible new trend has taken over America’s prison systems in the past fifty years. Mass incarceration, or the exponential growth in this nation’s prison population, first started to become an apparent problem in the 1970’s. Unfortunately, this trend was only further inflamed by political pressure aimed to combat the uptick in crime by adding stricter sentencing laws and requiring law enforcement agencies to be tougher on crime [1]. In the past four decades, there has been a 500% increase in the number of people in prisons and jails in America [2]. In 1970, the United States prison population was 194,429. In 2009, the United States reached its peak at 1,615,487 people in prison [3]. Mass incarceration holds many problems for the future of this country, and the state of Georgia is a major contributor to these rising numbers.

Georgia has an incarceration rate of 968 per 100,000 people, adding to the approximately 451,000 Georgia residents that are behind bars or under community supervision [4]. Georgia has the highest rate of correctional supervision in the country, with one out of every eighteen adults under some variation of correctional control [5]. Therefore, to combat mass incarceration that is threatening the lives of thousands in America, states must individually look towards the problems that threaten the equality of its residents.

One major problem that is part of mass incarceration is the unproportionate increase in racial and ethnic minorities who are in the prison systems [6]. African-American non-Hispanics constitute only 31% of Georgia’s residents, yet they make up a whopping 59% of the prison population. On the other hand, White non-Hispanics are 51% of Georgia’s population, yet only makeup 37% of the prison population [7]. According to the 2021 study by The Sentencing Project titled “One in Five: Ending Racial Equality in Incarceration”, Black Americans were imprisoned at 5 times the rate of their white counterparts [8]. This relates back to discriminatory cash bail being imposed at higher numbers with higher rates on African-Americans at 35% higher bail rates than their white counterparts [9]. Another problem is the detrimental economic impact that results from the thousands of Georgia residents waiting for trial in jail simply because they can not afford their assigned cash bail. Pretrial detention is expensive for local governments, forcing local taxpayers to forfeit money that could be saved by allowing detained individuals to maintain their normal lives while awaiting trial. 

One alternative to lowering the prison population could be the elimination of cash bail. The problem with the requiring of cash bail before an initial court hearing is that it results in the intended detention of individuals who can not afford it, even though they are technically not guilty of any crime at the time [10]. In fact, 64% of Georgia’s total jail population is in pre-trial detention [11].

One good step towards this was an ordinance in February 2018 that eliminated cash bonds to secure release from the City of Atlanta Detention Center following an arrest for any violation of city ordinances [12]. Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms of Atlanta signed ordinance 18-O-1045 as an effort toward criminal justice reform. This helps to eliminate those help in hail simply because they can not afford to pay bail. This ordinance also further authorized the Officer of Public Defenders to provide additional legal and social services to defendants who are related to the public with the necessary support and resources they require to integrate back into their communities. By signing more ordinances such as this one, Georgia could create a downward trend in the number of individuals stuck awaiting trial in jail due to financial reasons.

In the 2023 Georgia legislative session, Senate Bill 63, which delves into the expansion of cash bail, did not pass [13]. This would have amended Chapter 6 of Title 17 and Code Section 17-10-6.1 of the Official Code of Georgia Annotated which blatantly criminalizes poverty by expanding mandatory cash bail for additional offenses [14]. Further, this bill attempted to expand the list of serious offenses for which bail is required, explicitly discriminating against those who can not afford cash bail for petty offenses. Luckily, this bill did not pass on the House floor.

Athens-Clarke County judges currently have the discretion to not assign bonds for low-level non-violent offenses, yet the push for the elimination of cash bail is still a major problem within the criminal justice system. Representative Spencer Frye believes in the reformation of Georgia’s current criminal justice system by putting an end to the current cash bail system. By allowing judges to establish penalties on a case-by-case basis without any arbitrary minimums set by legislatures, there could be an end to using money as a form of pre-trial bond. Overall, whether or not an individual should be allowed release before trial should be based on their individual level of threat to the community, not on people’s financial capabilities.