Civil Rights Legal Groups Call for End to Money Bail in Atlanta Municipal Court

13th November, 2017

(Atlanta, GA) – On Friday, November 10, 2017, two civil rights organizations, Civil Rights Corps (CRC) and the Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR), sent a letter to Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed calling for an end to wealth-based pre-trial detention in the Atlanta Municipal Court.  The letter, copies of which were mailed to all city councilmembers and municipal court judges, asks Atlanta officials to take immediate steps to eliminate the Municipal Court’s pre-set money bail policy and instead implement a constitutionally compliant post-arrest system.

Under the municipal court’s current policy, Atlanta’s jail uses a “bail schedule” that lists a pre-set sum for each minor offense and automatically requires money as a condition of release, with no judicial review.  People who can afford to pay are immediately released after booking.  Those who cannot are detained.  As a result, city jail cells are filled nightly with people charged with misdemeanors and ordinance violations only because they cannot pay.

Due to the municipal court’s unjust policies, many people who cannot afford to purchase their release plead guilty just to get out of jail. Those who do not plead guilty are “bound over” and transferred to the Fulton County Jail.  Public records show that in 2016 at least 890 people were “bound over” and transferred to the county jail, where they were held for a total of 9,000 days before their cases ended, or their bail amounts were reduced.  The pace at which cases process through the Atlanta Municipal Courts is so slow that individuals often spend longer in pre-trial detention for misdemeanor cases than their jail sentence upon conviction would require.

The letter from CRC and SCHR identifies numerous other unconstitutional and problematic practices.  For example, on a regular basis, municipal court judges fail to inquire about the arrestee’s ability to pay bail; indeed, no financial information whatsoever is collected.  Judges often fail to make constitutionally required findings that monetary bail is necessary to assure court appearances or community safety.  Some judges have a blanket policy of refusing signature bonds to people who are homeless.  Additionally, the groups’ letter expresses concern about a behind-closed-doors push to replace the Interim Director of the Atlanta Public Defender’s Office, in apparent retaliation for her attempts to shed light on the court’s treatment of her indigent clients.

The City’s money bail scheme harms low-income citizens of Atlanta.  Empirical evidence shows that pretrial detention due to inability to pay increases the likelihood of conviction, the likelihood of a jail sentence, and the length of the sentence imposed.  Arrestees lose jobs, cars, housing, and child custody due to even just a few days or weeks in jail.  No study has found that secured money bail improves public safety.  Releasing arrestees on recognizance with court reminders and, when necessary, with tailored conditions and appropriate supervision, costs significantly less than detaining everyone who cannot pay money bail, and such systems largely avoid the disruption of lives that result from money-based systems.

“No human being should be kept in a jail cell because she cannot make a monetary payment,” said Alec Karakatsanis, founder and Executive Director of Civil Rights Corps. “Wealth-based human caging has no place in our society.”

The groups’ letter to Mayor Reed comes at a pivotal moment in which the conversation on cash bail is changing in Georgia, and nationwide.  In Atlanta, a coalition of community organizations led by Southerners on New Ground (SONG) has been collecting donations to pay bail for black women incarcerated in local jails solely because they couldn’t to pay bond.  The group has paid bail for over 40 women since May 2017.  That includes ten women who were first incarcerated in the Atlanta City Detention Center for as long as 10 days, and then transferred to the Fulton County Jail, where they spent additional time in jail.

The community organizers have now launched a petition calling for an end to money bail in Atlanta and Fulton County, citing many of the problems with money bail discussed in the letter that SCHR and CRC sent to the City of Atlanta. The petition can be found online here:

Nationally, the American Bar Association, the United States Department of Justice, and the Conference of Chief Justices, which represents the Chief Justice of every state supreme court, including Georgia, have all issued legal briefs condemning the kinds of practices that prevail every day in Atlanta.  In addition, numerous courts around the country have reformed their pre-trial practices, either of their own volition, or after litigation forced an end to wealth-based detention.  For example:

  • In July 2017, in Cook County (Chicago), Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans issued a standing order ending wealth-based detention in Chicago’s criminal system.  Under the order, if a defendant poses no danger to the public, judges in Cook County are now obligated to inquire into the ability of the defendant to pay, and set bail only in an amount that the defendant can pay at the time of the hearing.
  • In June 2017, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia issued an order halting the City of Calhoun’s policy of jailing low-income people who could not pay money bail according to a pre-set bond schedule, without inquiring into ability to pay.  (The bond schedule at issue in that litigation is similar to one used by the City of Atlanta’s Municipal Court.)
  • In April 2017, U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal found Harris County, Texas’s bail practices unconstitutional and ordered the release of nearly all misdemeanor defendants from jail within 24 hours of arrest, irrespective of their ability to pay the bond amount.
  • Within the past two years, the municipal court judges in the 75 largest cities in Alabama issued standing orders eradicating the use of secured money bail for new misdemeanor arrests throughout almost the entire state of Alabama.

"It's time to do away with the two-tiered criminal system in which people of means go free, while those who can't pay are stuck in jail only because of their poverty," said Sarah Geraghty, Managing Attorney at SCHR.