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New Year’s Day is often seen as a step forward, but for advocates of eliminating cash bail in Georgia, it will inevitably be a step backward.

Senate Bill 402 is set to go into effect on Jan. 1. The bill, sponsored by six Republican state senators, eliminates release under Own Recognizance for a number of felony charges including murder, rape, aggravated assault, robbery, driving under the influence and bail jumping. 

Release under OR is a way for those accused of committing a crime to avoid jail time or posting bail by receiving a citation and promising to appear for a court date. This form of release, also known as a signature bond, replaces the cash or bond bail option that would require the accused to forfeit a certain amount of money or personal property to the court as collateral to incentivize their appearance. 

The changes to the bill replace the term “own recognizance” with “unsecured judicial release.” District 5 Commissioner Tim Denson, an advocate for cash bail reform and co-creator of The Freedom Act, said release under OR plays little role in whether someone appears for their court date. 

Denson said the amount of reminders and access to transportation a person has play a larger role in their ability to appear in court. 

“It’s much more helpful for us to use systems such as calling and texting systems to remind people about their court dates,” Denson said.

In June 2019, the ACC Mayor and Commission passed The Freedom Act, which eliminates cash bail for ACC ordinance violations. The commission also voted to allocate funding to implement a text notification system which would assist Athenians in remembering their court dates.

While the ACC commission only has the ability to eliminate cash or bond bail on a local level, District 2 Commissioner Mariah Parker, a co-creator of The Freedom Act, said change must be made higher up to impact a larger scope of Georgia’s criminal justice system.

“I do think we need to push further, it may require intervention at the state level, with regards to...making the case that it’s not about letting dangerous people out of jail,” Parker said, “It’s about treating dangerous people equally.”

Parker said that if a judge truly considers someone to be a flight-risk or a danger to the community, it makes more sense to issue no bail at all, rather than an incredibly high bail that only the wealthy and well-connected would be able to afford.

She gave the example of Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old Illinois resident who was arrested for allegedly killing two people in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Rittenhouse was released in early November after posting a $2 million bail with the assistance of crowdfunding. 

Parker said that regardless of the crime committed, the amount of money in a person’s pockets should not determine whether they get to walk free before trial. 

In the current world, money matters, “and that is what is insidious about cash bail,” Parker said.

District 3 Commissioner Melissa Link said bail bondsmen stand to benefit from the cash bail system and use lobbying money to influence politicians to support legislation that keeps the system in place.

“There’s a good reason why they [bail bondsmen] contribute to political campaigns for certain candidates that are [for] cash bail,” said Link.

Two years before signing SB 402 into law, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp received a total $17,750 of non-individual contributions from bail bond organizations. During the 2020 election, at least half of SB 402’s sponsors received contributions from the Georgia Association of Professional Bondsman.

Bond organizations are comprised of bail bondsmen, or individuals that agree to pay the bail of someone accused of a crime in exchange for a nonrefundable fee, or bond premium —generally 10-15% of the bail amount. The remainder of bail is collected from the person through collateral — a car, house or jewelry. If the individual fails to appear in court, the bond company pays the court and sells collateral to recoup the full amount.

With bail bondsman organizations donating to politicians, removing the element of money from the criminal justice system will be a difficult task, Denson said.

“It comes back to that question of “Why are we using such an antiquated system?” and I think the answer is because it benefits those in power of wealth. And, I believe that much of our state legislature is definitely prioritizing just maintaining that power of wealth,” Denson said.