Bail reform advocates in Athens have a powerful ally in their corner: Mayor Kelly Girtz.
The Athens-Clarke County commissioners will talk criminal justice system evolution on March 20 at 5:30 p.m. at City Hall, and Girtz said he wants to promote alternative bail measures beside cash bail.
Girtz said he researched bail reforms by reviewing a study from Stanford University that showed detained defendants are more likely to commit future crimes. The study explained pretrial defendants are incarcerated due to the inability to pay bail, which increases the likelihood that defendants will plead guilty to avoid a lengthy jail sentence, even if they are innocent.
“I can’t tell the judges what to do,” Girtz said, “but what I can do is provide some opportunity and budgetary resources that might enhance their level of comfort with new bail and bond measures.”
Girtz suggested a text message system to increase the likelihood for defendants, charged with a misdemeanor, to show up to their court date if they are released from jail.
“The researchers demonstrated that people who get that kind of notification were more likely to end up in court,” he said. “In fact, more likely than people who have been in for seven days and then their family man just cobbled together the bond amount.”
If cash bails are eliminated, three bonds remain for a judge to consider: signature bond, property bond or no bond at all. A judge will consider both the risk the defendant has upon the community and the reliability of the defendant when setting bond for felonies and misdemeanors.
A signature bond, also known as an own recognizance bond, allows defendants to use their signature as a promise they will return for trial instead of paying 10 percent of their bond to a bail bondsman, ACC Chief Magistrate Judge Patricia Barron said. Signature bonds are more commonly used with misdemeanors while no bonds are used with felonies, but there are exceptions within the court system.
John Donnelly, a circuit public defender for the Western Judicial Circuit, explained in an email that a judge may set a signature bond on a felony charge if evidence is presented that suggests the case against the defendant is not as strong. Donnelly also said a judge might set a signature bond for a felony charge if the defendant has a warrant in another county and will be transferred or if the defendant does not have a criminal history has proven he or she is not a threat to the community and will return for trial.
“It definitely doesn't happen very often,” Donnelly said, “and there is always going to be a reason for it.”
Barron explained her decision-making process when setting a bond and how she weighs the outcome of her decision.
“My job is not to just let [the defendant] out on signature bond because that’s what the community wants,” Barron said. “My job is to see what the crime is, how serious it is, whether anyone was hurt or not and decide what’s best to protect the community against [the defendant’s] act.”
Nathan Owens, the owner of Liberty Bonding, is an alumnus of the University of Georgia and has been serving as a bail bondsman in the Athens-Clarke area for 10 years. He worked at Double “O” Bonding in Athens, until he opened his own business in 2017.
Owens is worried that bail reforms will comprise public safety, refuse justice for victims of violent acts and decrease the accountability within the court system.
“I’m a member of the community,” Owens said. “Public safety is a concern of mine. I am here as a concerned citizen.”
Bonds have a greater negative impact on low-income people and their families, according to research conducted by Fair and Just Prosecution, a non-profit organization whose mission is to promote a fair justice system. Bail reforms will give defendants charged with misdemeanors a chance of not having to pay bail amounts they cannot afford.
“Holding a person in jail simply because they do not have the money to post bond discriminates against the poor person, though wealth is irrelevant to guilt or innocence."
— Russell Gabriel, UGA law professor
Approximately 34 percent of Athens-Clarke County residents fall below the poverty level as of 2017, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“Holding a person in jail simply because they do not have the money to post bond discriminates against the poor person, though wealth is irrelevant to guilt or innocence,” Russell Gabriel, clinical professor and Criminal Defense Practicum director at the University of Georgia, said.
A person who is acquitted is not compensated for the time he or she spent in jail due to an inability to make bond, Gabriel said. Gabriel described putting individuals in jail before their trial as “putting the sentence before the judgment” and said many who consider this phenomenon “un-American.”
Nathan Deal, who served as governor of Georgia from 2011 to January 2019, signed a law in 2018 that requires the court to consider a defendant’s financial status when determining bail. The bill stated that when determining bail for a defendant, the court must consider the defendant's financial resources as well as financial income so that defendant is not forced into pretrial incarceration due to the inability to afford bail.
Bail reform measures have gained traction across the nation as well as in Georgia. In 2018, California became the first state to eliminate cash bonds, a move which will become effective October 2019. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms signed an ordinance in 2018 which eliminated cash bail in the city for some low-level crimes if the offender cannot pay.