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Editor’s note: We originally published a version of this article in September 2018, when the Atlanta City Council was considering repealing a law they had passed only six months prior, which ended the use of cash bail for some misdemeanor charges. Though the Council did not repeal the law, it has never been enforced, and state legislators have tried to undermine it. A similar chain of events has played out when it comes to shutting down the Atlanta city jail: in May 2019, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announced a plan to close and repurpose the jail, but the city’s latest budget proposal includes $18 million for the facility.
As campaigns to defund and disband police departments gain momentum in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police, this story is a cautionary tale. Politician’s promises and legislative victories grab headlines and buoy our spirits. But the hardest work comes after.
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A bail bond company in Atlanta. Photo by Anna Simonton.
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms made bail reform a central tenet of her closely contested campaign in 2017. After winning the election, she pushed legislation through in a matter of weeks and declared that she was, “making a commitment that the City of Atlanta will ensure that no one will be jailed because of their inability to pay.”
But while more and more progressive officials are embracing bail reform, the optics may be better than the actual results. What happened next in Atlanta shows that after legislation passes, backlash to implementation is where the rubber meets the road, and substantive changes either happen, or don’t.
On a September evening in 2018, the usually quiet meeting room of the Atlanta City Council’s Public Safety Committee was so packed that a fire marshal had to order part of the crowd into an adjacent chamber to watch the proceedings on television.
Dozens of people turned out to discuss Bottoms’ landmark city ordinance, passed in February that year, which abolished cash bail for some misdemeanors. The new law was meant to end undue suffering stemming from cash bail in cases like that of Sean Ramsey, a homeless man who Atlanta police arrested in October 2017 for holding a sign asking for help while standing on the sidewalk. Ramsey spent 72 days in jail because he didn’t have $200 to bail himself out. Across the country, hundreds of thousands of people sit in jail cells every day on trivial charges simply because they can’t afford bail.
Under Atlanta’s new law, people arrested for these kinds of minor infractions can be released on “signature bond”––a promise to show up in court.
But even though council members unanimously passed the measure, some of them backtracked to claim it undermines operations at the local jail and called for a redo.
While more and more progressive officials are embracing bail reform, the optics may be better than the actual results.
Community members were also dissatisfied with the outcomes of the new law, though for a different reason. Many of the people who showed up for the Public Safety Committee meeting belonged to organizations that advocated to get rid of cash bail and viewed the February vote as a victory, if only a first step. But they found that the law wasn’t being properly implemented: many arrestees who should be freed on signature bond were still stuck in the city jail.
“We have seen that 39.5 percent of the time, the ordinance is not being applied,” Maria Ptucha, a member of Southerners On New Ground (SONG), told council members. “There are people who have been locked up and detained who, as far as we can tell, have no reason to be there based on the legislation you have passed.”
Ptucha was one of many volunteers who monitored the implementation of Atlanta’s bail reform ordinance through a court-watching program they devised. Between April and September, the volunteers documented 700 hearings. Under the new law, the only arrestees not eligible for signature bond are those whose charges involve “an element of violence or threatened violence against a person.”
The jail’s average daily population shrank from 439 in February to 137 in September. Chief Labat’s seemed to believe that staying out of jail was a missed opportunity for those hundreds of people.
Yet, according to SONG and the Southern Center for Human Rights––a legal organization that also pushed for the bail reform and monitored the courts––corrections officers continued locking up people on nonviolent charges. On top of that, they found that judges further violated the new ordinance by neglecting to ask defendants about their ability to pay before setting a cash bond amount. This violation occurred in 95.5 percent of cases according to SONG.
City council members refused to address these findings during the Public Safety Committee meeting, instead focusing on presentations by law enforcement officials. The bail reform ordinance included a requirement that the Atlanta Corrections Department Chief, Patrick Labat, monitor the effects of the new law and report back to the committee after six months. SONG, SCHR, and others called on the committee to postpone the review after a massive cyberattack in March disabled city departments from collecting data for four months out of the six-month review period, but committee members forged ahead.
Chief Labat, who oversees the Atlanta City Detention Center, spoke at length about inmate work detail (which he noted is not “slave labor” but the “crown jewel of everything we do”) and a job training re-entry program that he described as being “in the business of changing lives.” At first it was unclear what these programs had to do with bail reform. Later, Chief Labat said that as the jail population dwindles, fewer people will have access to these work and training activities.
Even though the bail reform ordinance wasn’t being fully implemented, between the new law and Mayor Bottoms’ decision to stop collaborating with ICE––which held immigrant detainees at ACDC––the jail’s average daily population shrank from 439 in February 2018 to 137 in September 2018. Chief Labat seemed to believe that staying out of jail was a missed opportunity for those hundreds of people. He also implied that bail reform was bad for homeless people who, he said, “don’t want to leave” the jail when they are released.
“We should not be using talking points stolen from the Confederacy playbook, saying, ‘Prisons are kind because massa feeds us.'”
Council members appeared to agree. Cleta Winslow, who has represented a swath of Atlanta’s west side since 1994, said inmates “are getting something positive” out of detention. Michael Julian Bond, son of the late Civil Rights leader Julian Bond, offered that “sometimes being incarcerated is not an impediment.” Nearly every council member on the committee lauded Chief Labat for his altruism in what one spectator called a “Praise-A-Thon.”
Atlanta City Council Members Cleta Winslow and Michael Julian Bond. Screenshot from Atlanta Channel 26/ATL26 broadcast of the September 25, 2018 Public Safety Committee hearing.
Tiffany Roberts, an SCHR attorney, leveled a damning critique at the idea of jail as a social service agency. “We should not be using talking points stolen from the Confederacy playbook, saying, ‘Prisons are kind because massa feeds us,’” she said during a public comment period.
Constance Collier Mercado, a member of Atlanta’s Black Lives Matter chapter who experienced homelessness firsthand, criticized council members for commending the jail’s social services after voting to close the largest homeless shelter in the Southeast. “[There was] no plan for where these people are going to go,” she said during public comment. “And now you talk about the jail doing an excellent job of taking them in and giving them beds when they should have homes.”
Council members were also concerned about the increase in Failure To Appear charges. That’s when a person released on bond doesn’t show up for their court date. According to Atlanta Municipal Court Chief Judge Christopher Portis, the number of FTAs in July 2018 was double that of July 2017.
The council members’ fears were stoked by the Atlanta Chief of Police, Erika Shields, who claimed that “the judicial system has gaps and it is allowing individuals who are predisposed to violence, committing violent acts over and over, to continually get either a low bond or signature bond.”
However, she was proven wrong by Chief Labat’s presentation, which included a list of the top ten charges for which people had received signature bond since February. Half were traffic violations. The rest were non violent charges including theft of less than $100, marijuana possession, and distributing drug-related objects.
A slide from Chief Labat’s presentation, showing the most common charges of people who are released from the Atlanta jail on signature bond.
“It’s deceptive to suggest that violent offenders are the ones benefiting from this ordinance,” Roberts, the SCHR attorney, asserted in her public comment.
She went on to remind council members that the bail reform ordinance included a provision about using cost-savings from locking up fewer people to invest in resources that prevent FTAs. She said text-messaging systems that send automated court-date reminders have been proven to work in other jurisdictions. No council members have followed up on that provision. “You have not done your due diligence,” Roberts told them.
As the five-hour meeting wore on, it became increasingly clear that some council members, especially Bond, regretted passing bail reform.
“The elephant in the room is that this is really just a bad law,” Bond said at one point. Later he added, “It’s almost like swiss cheese. It’s very well-intended… But it obviously is not getting to the heart of the matter.”
We need municipalities to invest in rebuilding the social fabric instead of letting people languish in a cage. We demanded something broader. They narrowed it down. Now they say it’s broken.”
The heart of the matter in his view seemed to be the law’s failure to address the problems that aren’t solved by simply replacing cash bond with signature bond. Where do homeless people go when they are released? How do people without adequate transportation options get to court? What happens to people who cycle in and out of jail because of poverty and other adversities?
The irony in attacking the bail reform ordinance for not addressing these important questions is that the original legislation did.
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SONG advocated for a provision in the ordinance that would have established a commission to “study the bail system in the City of Atlanta, identify gaps in court and community resources, survey relevant stakeholders and report findings with recommendations to the City Council.” But that provision was axed as council members debated the details of the legislation.
“We’ve been asking for a needs-assessment that would determine what people need to get back to court and stay out of jail,” Kate Shapiro, SONG’s membership director at the time, explained in an interview with Scalawag.
Community members in Durham North Carolina bailed Black mamas out of jail ahead of Mother’s Day as part of a national effort led by Southerners on New Ground. Photo by Kelly Credon.
“That starts with systems-based solutions like text-messaging court reminders and providing transportation,” she continued. “From there it looks at the fact that people need housing, medical care, addiction recovery services. We need municipalities to invest in rebuilding the social fabric instead of letting people languish in a cage. We demanded something broader. They narrowed it down. Now they say it’s broken.”
In a rejection of the needs-assessment idea, Councilmember Winslow took a patronizing tone and lectured the crowd, claiming that it’s the job of Fulton County and nonprofits, not the City of Atlanta, to provide social services.
“What organizations do you have in place to serve the people that [the jail is] now serving?” Winslow demanded. “I’m telling you, get to stepping. While you’re stepping here, step over there [in Fulton County].”
Formerly incarcerated people, including Marilyn Winn who is the Lead Organizer of Women on the Rise, implored council members not to give up on comprehensive bail reform.
“Sitting in a cage because you have mental health challenges or substance abuse issues or a traffic violation is unfair to our human race,” Winn said. “You started out doing the right thing when you voted for bail reform. Continue to do what is right.”
In an impassioned speech at the end of the meeting, SONG Co-Director Mary Hooks asked Council members––and they agreed––to hold a public work session, where organizations like SONG, Women on the Rise, and SCHR can present their research and collaborate on crafting solutions.
“I need y’all to take some thought leadership and bring some vision to this city about what is possible,” Hooks said. “If you can believe in a heaven or hell you’ve never seen or put your foot in, you mean to tell me you don’t have the vision to see how we build a city that doesn’t rely on cages?”