An Atlanta man with a history of mental illness was put in jail for almost three months recently because he couldn’t pay $500 in bail. He was released earlier this month.
Since then, the city of Atlanta has proposed changes to its cash bail system and there are calls for broader reforms across the state.
We talked to Marissa Dodson, Public Policy Director for the Southern Center for Human Rights, about where Atlanta’s misdemeanor system falls flat. And we spoke with Jennifer Sellitti, Director of Training and Communications with the Office of the Public Defender in New Jersey, about her state’s acclaimed bail reforms.
Adam Ragusea: What is the purpose of bail?
Marissa Dodson: There are two purposes. The first is to ensure that the person will come back to court and will actually deal with the charges for which they have been accused. The second purpose is that they will not pose a public safety risk. It is to ensure that there will be no future criminal activity.
Ragusea: Maria, what does the mayor [Keisha Lance Bottoms] have in mind for how specifically to change the bail bonding system in Atlanta?
Dodson: We are very optimistic that she has taken the stance that she’s eliminating cash bail for most minor offenses. I think it’s important to just reiterate that what we are looking for is a mandate on this issue that there will be clarity for individuals, so if they are charged with certain things, then there will be no conditions related to their financial obligations.
Ragusea: With your experience in New Jersey, is there a concern having passed these reforms?
Jennifer Sellitti: It is not. There has been a lot of fear mongering by some of the local law enforcement and the bail industry about our new system. We have to remember that prior to pretrial justice reform, people would bail out and commit new offenses. So, the idea that “somebody’s getting out and committing a new offense is the fault of the pretrial justice system” is wrong. I think it’s dangerous to present information to the public that way. The truth is that you can never have a system that’s foolproof. What people have to remember is under our old system; the judge was not allowed to consider whether or not somebody was a danger to the community, when the judge made the decision on whether or not to release them. People who were released were not monitored in any way whatsoever by the court. So now we have a system that considers the dangerousness, and allows us to incarcerate pre-trial and it creates a way that if people are released, they have support and services and monitoring in place to prevent them from reoffending.
Ragusea: What is notable to you about the cash bail system as it currently works in Atlanta and more broadly across Georgia?
Dodson: Well, as I said, I think that wealth based detention is not only unconstitutional, and that whether or not you are incarcerated turns on your financial means, but also it perpetuates systemic poverty. This cycling individuals like Mr. McCrary, as you referenced earlier, through our criminal justice system when these individuals who are most in need of services, perpetuates the same kind of systemic issues that we should be intentional on trying to address in our communities instead of using our criminal justice system as a place in which people reside.