April Brown.jpg

April Brown speaks to Athens mayor and commissioners in support of ending cash bail in Athens-Clarke County on June 4, 2019 at City Hall. (Photo/Foster Steinbeck)

After listening to several community members who offered only support, the Mayor and Commission unanimously approved an amendment for local ordinance Sec. 3-5-36 during their regular session on Jun. 4, effectively eliminating cash and bond bail for low-level offenders in Athens-Clarke County.

This amendment is apart of the Freedom Act of Athens Clarke County, which aims to reform the criminal justice system. Other changes to local ordinance were passed aimed towards fighting the cash and bond bail system.

Of note under the amended ordinances, no citizens caught violating any provision of the Athens-Clarke County local code of ordinance — consisting of low-level crimes such as curb parking or defacing parking meters — will be detained or arrested with exception of dangerous intoxication, threats or acts of violence, failure to identify self when issued a citation, failure to sign petition or not showing up for required legal proceedings. Instead, the accused will be issued a citation as outlined in Sec. 1-1-5 9 (c).

“I’m so excited [...] it’s not complete, but it’s a great first step to our goal of making Athens a bright example of criminal justice reform,” Chairwoman of Athens’s Libertarian Party April Brown said.

Brown came out in support of the bill and was quite pleased with the verdict. Brown has been advocating for ending cash bail and other criminal justice reforms for months and was surprised no opposing bond bail advocates made an appearance.

However, as District 7 Commissioner Russell Edwards pointed out, such reforms could be challenged and face being overruled by potential state laws during the upcoming state legislative session.

The American Bail System

Cash Bail is the money the accused must pay to avoid waiting in jail before their trial. The bail acts as collateral, ensuring the accused returns to court and abides by certain conditions to their case. Regardless of the court’s verdict, the entirety of the bail money is returned to the accused.

Bail Bonds are money posted on behalf of the defendants, usually by for-profit, bail bond companies. A defendant will usually pay 10% to 20% of their bail amount to a bail bond company, who bears the responsibility of paying their client’s bail if their client doesn’t make his or her court date.

Critics of cash bail and bond bail argue that it benefits wealthy individuals while hurting low-income individuals and minorities. Supporters argue that cash bail keeps the peace and keeps dangerous individuals off the streets.

Due to the recently passed amendment, those accused of low-level crimes in Athens-Clarke County will now be released under their Own Recognizance (OR). This court precedent, release under OR, results in the accused avoiding jail time by signing a contract in which the accused promises to appear for court dates and abide by other conditions. This system, as outlined in Sec. 3-5-36, replaces the cash and bond bail system.

Activism in Athens

Mokah-Jasmine Johnson, founder and president of the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement, was the first in line to speak in favor of passing the amendments received the commission’s decision with great joy.

Johnson has been speaking with local judges and examining police reports to deepen her knowledge on the criminal justice system in Athens-Clarke County. Johnson supports the ordinance amendments as a way of combating mass incarceration.

No supporters of the cash bail system were available for comment due to no supporters appearing to speak against the amendments at the meeting.

Other cities in Georgia have passed cash bail reform. Last summer, Calhoun stop requiring cash bail for low level offenses after a lawsuit. In February, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms signed an ordinance which eliminates cash bail for low-level offenses in its municipal courts. Other large southern cities like Nashville and New Orleans have also passed varying levels of cash bail reform.

However, six state legislators from Georgia sponsored Senate Bill-164 during the last state legislative cycle. The proposed bill would have reversed previous, local level criminal justice reforms from cities like Athens-Clarke County, such as eliminating the use of OR.

Although the bill was struck down, Edwards believes the bill will most likely make a reappearance in the next state legislative session in 2020.

“While we can come together, create and cooperate, and make create great reforms here, they can just as easily be undone,” Edwards said.

Johnson agrees, believing laws must be changed at a higher level for the cash bail reforms to be sustainable.

“[Reform] has to be done on a state level, even a federal level. Until then, we are always going to struggle,” Johnson said.

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