Georgia, once a self-proclaimed leader in criminal justice reform, is sliding a little further toward its old lock-’em-up ways.
State senators voted 30-17 on Thursday to require cash bail for 30 additional crimes, including 18 that are always or often misdemeanors, leaving Senate Bill 63 only one House vote from passage.
The measure also seeks to limit charitable bail funds or even individuals from bailing multiple people out of jail, reserving that ability only to those who meet legal requirements to be bail bond companies.
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The move could strand poor defendants in jail when accused of crimes for which they’re unlikely to ever go to prison. It could also aggravate overcrowding in Georgia’s county lockups. It erodes changes that passed nearly unanimously in 2018 under Republican Gov. Nathan Deal that allowed judges to release most people accused of misdemeanors without bail.
It’s part of a push by Republicans nationwide to increase reliance on cash bail, even as some Democratic-led jurisdictions end cash bail entirely or dramatically restrict its use. That split was exemplified last year when a court upheld Illinois’ plan to abolish cash bail, while voters in Wisconsin approved an amendment to the constitution letting judges consider someone’s past convictions for violent crimes before setting bail.
Republican Sen. Randy Robertson of Cataula, a longtime sheriff’s deputy and former state president of the Fraternal Order of Police, said Thursday that the measure is about “making our communities safer.” He’s argued in pushing the bill since last year that victims feel the justice system doesn’t care about them when suspects are released without cash bail.
But Roy Copeland, a Valdosta lawyer who served on Deal’s Criminal Justice Reform Council, said the measure will cause people accused of misdemeanors to lose their jobs, homes and custody of their children when they get stuck in jail and can’t afford bail.
“You’re literally taking food out of the mouths of children and adults,” Copeland said.
It’s not the first time Republicans lengthened the list of crimes in Georgia where the accused is required to post cash or property bail. That list, already at 24, would be expanded further. Bail would be required for a second or later misdemeanor offense of reckless driving or criminal trespass, as well as for any misdemeanor battery.
People would also be required to post bail for failing to appear in court for a traffic ticket if it’s their second or later offense. The maximum penalty for failing to appear for a traffic ticket is three days in jail. That’s also how long authorities have to bring someone before a judge after they’re arrested on a warrant for failing to appear.
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp has said he wants more restrictive bail conditions. With state lawmakers, but not Kemp, facing voters this year, it could be a sign that Republicans intend to bash their Democratic opponents as soft on crime as they did in 2022. Kemp has also backed other anti-crime proposals, including longer sentences for some criminals.
Some Republican supporters of Deal’s push say it’s not a betrayal of those years worth of efforts, noting that a Deal-backed provision requiring judges to take account of a person’s ability to pay in setting bail remains in law.
“So much of what criminal justice reform was about was trying not to do a one-size-fits-all for every person,” said Sen. Brian Strickland, a McDonough Republican. “This preserves the discretion.”
But Sen. Josh McLaurin, an Atlanta Democrat, rejected the idea that judges would set ultralow bail amounts, or that bonding companies would be willing to take that business.
“When we says as a matter of law that jail is where we want people to be, and we create structural incentives for people to end up there, then those funnels are going to funnel people there,” McLaurin said.
Several Democrats suggested the move to restrict bail funds is related to ongoing prosecutions of protesters against the police and fire training center that Atlanta is building. Those protesters deride the project as “Cop City.” Among 61 indictments that Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr won against protesters in September were charges against three people who operated a bail fund.
The Bail Project, a fund which says it has bailed more than 1,500 Georgians out of jail since 2019, questioned the decision to limit groups and people who don’t meet the requirements to be bondsmen to bailing out only three people a year in any city or county.
“This is like placing restrictions on a food pantry while claiming to solve hunger,” spokesperson Lizzie Tribone said in a statement.
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