Georgia House panel considers bill to require cash bail for crimes

District attorneys, a group of criminal defense attorneys and civil rights advocates on Monday warned a House panel considering a bill that would change the way bail is handled for crimes that the change could unfairly keeping more people locked up in prisons who cannot afford bail and preventing them from accessing treatment programs.

The House Public Safety and Homeland Security Subcommittee heard evidence for Senate Bill 504 this would require anyone arrested for a crime to post cash bail or provide property as surety in order to be released from prison.

A judge can now allow someone to avoid jail through ‘self-acknowledgement’ by signing documents promising to appear in court instead of giving money or property as collateral.

Republican Cataula Sen. Randy Robertson’s bill would dramatically expand the scope of “bail” charges beyond the roughly 30 crimes, such as aggravated assault and other predominantly violent crimes, by under existing law.

Prosecutors said Monday that if the bill becomes law on July 1, it would cover all 600 chargeable crimes in Georgia, including obstructing an officer or forgery for attempting to pass a stolen check.

DeKalb County District Attorney Sherry Boston said while public safety is most important, punishing those accused of certain crimes before they are even convicted could be counterproductive.

“We need to make sure we cast the net in order to catch those who we believe are harming the community, but not taking such a wide hit that we catch people who have made a legitimate mistake.” said Boston. “Those who are good people who have made bad choices.”

Robertson said his bill would specify that all crimes require bail after the Georgia legislature last year passed a law covering violent crimes, a bill he also authored.

This law was in response to people with long and dangerous criminal histories walking out without paying bail, only to end up being arrested again for other crimes.

All felony charges should require some type of bond, which will encourage more people to appear in court instead of skipping their hearing, Robertson said.

“If a judge feels that this person is in one of those situations where they can’t afford a large bond, the judge has the discretion to set that bond,” Robertson said. “For $25 or $50, it doesn’t matter…because we’ve found that people who have some ‘skin in the game’ tend to be more compliant with process tracking.”

Boston, however, said it was impractical to expect a judge to set very low bails for felonies when bail for a misdemeanor like driving with a suspended license is usually around $1500.

The measure is the latest example of tough-on-crime legislation promoted by many Republican lawmakers and advances in criminal justice reform over the past few years with broad support from GOP and Democratic lawmakers and advocacy organizations. civil rights.

The proposed law would be a significant departure from the bail reform measure lawmakers passed in 2018, which required judges to consider a person’s financial situation when setting bail for misdemeanors. .

At Monday’s hearing, Republican Rep. Danny Mathis, chairman of the committee, said a vote on the bill could take place later this session. The bill passed the Senate on March 15 in a split vote between the parties on the last day for the bill to pass to the other chamber.

Representatives from the Southern Center for Human Rights, the statewide criminal defense attorneys‘ association, and senior prosecutors said that because of the wording of the bill, people who may be Eligible for pre-trial diversion programs for mental health or substance abuse reasons may not receive needed services if they cannot pay bail.

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Accountability Court programs are designed to help those convicted of nonviolent crimes stay out of prison and find employment while undergoing intensive programs that have reduced recidivism in Georgia and many other states , while dramatically reducing the costs of keeping people incarcerated.

Programs have become a focal point of criminal justice reform efforts under Republican Governor Nathan Deal. And support for mental health and addiction treatment programs is included in GOP Chairman David Ralston’s mental health agenda, which is before the legislature.

“(SB 504) takes away from us the ability to be accountable and give them the opportunity to get the treatment and services they need so it’s not a way of life,” said Jared T. Williams, Augusta Judicial District Attorney. Circuit.

Atlanta Democratic Rep. Scott Holcomb, a former prosecutor, said he’s concerned that people are being forced to stay in jail because they can’t afford to post bail.

Prosecutors and lawyers say, however, that studies show that people who are not required to post bail are as likely to show up in court as those who have paid, and that the most important factor is often not receive notice of court dates after they’ve been evicted or their phone has been cut off.

But Robertson said he was a strong advocate for responsible courts and disagreed that the bill would harm programs.

“While I appreciate the expertise of everyone who testified, I did not hear a single mention of a victim,” Robertson said. “Standing on the podium, I heard no one showing compassion or concern for the citizens of this state. The poor, the middle class and the wealthy, who work every day and want to live in a community safe.

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