Georgia Senate passes bill to strip judges of most cash bail discretion

On Thursday, state senators passed a bill increasing offenses that require cash bail that Republican Sen. Randy Robertson said would ensure people charged with certain crimes have some “skin in the game.” (Stanley Dunlap/Georgia Recorder)

(GA Recorder) — The Georgia Senate passed a bill on Thursday that would ramp up the number of criminal charges that require bail to get out of jail to include misdemeanors such as criminal trespassing.

Senate Bill 63 is the latest legislation championed by Republican lawmakers as a way to further protect crime victims by prohibiting judges from sparing people jail time when they promise to return to court. But opponents of giving judges discretion over bail called the bill another example of Georgia’s past criminal justice reform efforts now severely undermined by new efforts to penalize people who cannot afford to stay out of jail.

The legislation now heads over to a House chamber where lawmakers will decide whether charges such as reckless driving, criminal trespassing, theft by taking, simple battery, and fighting should be included in a long list of crimes with bail requirements.

As part of the bill, judges are given the authority to set bail amounts and to waive the requirement that someone needs to post bail if they are cited for violating a local ordinance instead of a state statute.

Sen. Randy Robertson, a Cataula Republican, said Thursday that his bill is in response to people accused of a crime who skirt spending time in jail by getting out on signature bonds without putting up cash or property.

Whether it’s violent offenses like aggravated assault or murder or property crimes like simple theft and burglary, Robertson said people who are arrested are often those who have run afoul of the criminal justice system.

“These are not new criminals,” he said. “These are not people that woke up that morning and decided to go out and explore the world of breaking laws.

“What this bill does is it puts some rights back into the lives of those individuals who are victims. of crimes so that they know that the perpetrators who broke into their lives and either injured or took something from them, that they have to have a little skin in the game in order to get back out of jail,” said Robertson, a former lawman.

Democratic legislators, however, argued Thursday that the bill will reverse progress to reform efforts for cash bail and diversion programs, like accountability courts, that were the result of a criminal justice council established during Republican Gov. Nathan Deal’s tenure.

According to the council report, people who are held for two or three days pre-trial are nearly 40% more likely to commit another offense than those who are released within one day.

“It might be two days, it might be three days before somebody shows up to get them out of jail,” Sen. Derrick Mallow of Savannah said. “Well, most employers, if you don’t show up in the next 24 hours, you’re a no call, no show, you’re terminated.

“Now this individual that could have gotten a citation for a simple offense has lost their employment,” he said. “Next thing, they’re gonna lose their housing. Next thing, they lose their transportation.”

Lawrenceville Democratic Sen. Nabilah Islam said the bill unfairly targets many of the poorest Georgians who are more likely to interact with the criminal justice system.

Robertson’s bill is an “unnecessary and cruel” punishment that also erodes due process since many people who are locked up before their case is settled plead guilty at a higher rate and are sentenced more harshly.

“The size of your bank account should not determine the penalty you pay for a crime,” she said.

Sen. Josh McLaurin, a Sandy Springs Democrat, said politicians should not exert pressure on judges by using cash bail as a primary means of crime reduction.

The only factors judges should consider when deciding whether to take someone’s liberty before they are convicted of any crime is whether the person is likely to re-offend if they’re not held in jail and are a flight risk, McLaurin said.

The bill gives judges latitude to forgo bail if someone is participating in pre-trial diversion accountability courts for mental health, substance abuse, and in the case of veterans.

The problem, McLaurin said, is that rolling back cash bail reform puts undue pressure on accountability courts that can only take on some people because of court resource constraints. Accountability courts are a legacy of Deal’s Criminal Justice Reform Council.

“We are using it now here as a safety valve for cash bail in the jail system that we’re increasing the tension and the pressure on.

Republican Sen. John Albers said that the crime is so bad in some places that many people are afraid to leave their homes or perform regular tasks like going shopping.

“It mystifies me to be perfectly candid with you that some folks are so concerned about prisoners and criminals and not victims and citizens,” the Roswell lawmaker said.

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