Lessons Learned From Atlanta

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Several Fail To Appear for Court After Ordinance

State Of Atlanta May Point to Trouble for Other States

With much of the U.S. currently considering a future without bonds for certain crimes, we should note how that change has affected Atlanta. On February 6, 2018, the mayor of Atlanta, Keisha Lance Bottoms, signed Ordinance NO. 18-O-1045 which limits a judge’s ability to set cash bail in the Atlanta Municipal Court.

Under this ordinance, only individuals who have committed certain violent offenses , or are probable safety risks, are viable candidates for cash bail. Considered a risky and misguided decision by local law enforcement officials, Ordinance NO. 18-O-1045 has led to a noticeable change in the number of defendants who appear for their court dates.

The change was immediately noticeable in the Atlanta Municipal Court. The number of failure-to-appear cases rose from an average of 16,132 for the years 2015-2017 to 22,042 in 2018; an increase of 137%. As the residents of Atlanta became more comfortable with Ordinance NO. 18-O-1045 in 2019, the number of failure-to-appear cases rose further to 38,390, an increase of 174% over the previous year. Compared to the years leading up to the ordinance’s introduction, the change was an even higher 238%. With no signs of slowing in 2021, this increase in failure-to-appear cases does not bode well for states like Illinois and California.

Illinois Leads the Charge In Reform

While many states like New York, Alaska, and California have managed to roll back or protect cash bail, other states have been pushing for reform. One of these states, Illinois, was the first to begin the process to abolish the cash bail system this past February. Spurred by the riots of 2020, Illinois voted in its November elections to overhaul its legal system. It is currently revamping how it handles pretrial detentions, felony murder charges, officer accountability, and other standards.

How these changes affect, the overall well-being of Illinois is yet unknown. However, most law enforcement officials agree that the reform is unnecessary as many people in custody produce the necessary money themselves or through bail bonds. Many people also have their bail waived, after which the court releases them from custody in their recognizance. The opinion among law enforcement officials is that these changes will mostly serve criminals. The lack of bail will allow them to do as they please while providing no positive gain to their communities.

California Supreme Court Overrides the People

Although California protected the right to bail for its citizens with a ballot measure in November, the state’s Supreme Court has superseded this with their ruling. According to the Court’s ruling, no person should have their freedoms limited based on their ability to pay bail.

Instead of using a cash bail to ensure that someone shows up for their court date, the Court suggested that judges make use of alternative tracking methods. These methods range anywhere from regular check-ins to electronic monitors. Whether these methods will prove helpful authorities is yet to be seen but unlikely given how the situation in Atlanta has developed.

The Future Of Bail Reform

California’s situation has shown that the nation can no longer be sure of its right to bail. It is unfortunate that California citizens now find themselves in a position that the majority of them voted to avoid. As these reforms continue, there is little for us to look upon as a guide to handle these situations. It seems, however, that Georgia will continue to lead the nation in bail reforms for the time being. This is because the newly elected District Attorney for the Western Judicial Circuit, Deborah Gonzalez, seeks to bring changes to the bail system in Clarke and Oconee counties. How these changes will affect these communities is unclear but likely not dissimilar from what has happened to Atlanta.

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