ATLANTA (AP) — Two Georgia district attorneys are among those criticizing a bill to require cash bail before anyone charged with a felony could be released from jail saying it could maroon poor people behind bars and reduce access to pretrial diversion and alternative courts.
Senators last week voted 30-22 along party lines to pass Senate Bill 504, sponsored by Sen. Randy Robertson, a Cataula Republican. Last year, Robertson sponsored a law to increase to 28 the number of felony offenses for which cash bail is required. Now he wants to apply the same rule to all of Georgia’s more than 600 felony charges.
Robertson, a former Columbus police officer, argues that forcing people to put up money to get out of jail would make more of them appear for court and make them less likely to commit a crime while awaiting trial.
“When individuals get out freely and understand there’s a turnstile at the county jail to where they really don’t have to have any skin in the game, then those individuals devolve into the recidivists that we see today,” Robertson said during a subcommittee hearing Monday of the House Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee. “They go out and prey on our citizens within our community because they know the criminal justice system has no teeth.”
The subcommittee did not vote on the measure.
Robertson said judges can set bail as low as one dollar if people don’t have money. But Robertson said ultimately he’s not worried about people staying locked up because in his experience, most people arrested on felony charges are guilty.
“I do push back on the belief that our jails are full of a lot of innocent people, because I know that not to be true,” Robertson said.
Opponents say Robertson’s plan would trample upon the presumption of innocence and create a two-tiered justice system where only the rich could get out before trial. They also say that under the bill, only people who could afford bail could access pretrial diversion programs letting them avoid a felony conviction, or access drug courts or mental health courts aimed at providing treatment.
DeKalb County District Attorney Sherry Boston said Robertson’s bill would likely clog jails with people arrested for nonviolent felonies like theft over $500 and possession of narcotics. She said it isn’t “practical” that judges would set low bails for such defendants when misdemeanor bails in her county are already typically in the thousands of dollars.
“All felonies are not created equal,” Boston said. “And what this piece of legislation would do is it would equate all of those felonies.”
Jared Williams, district attorney for Richmond and Burke counties, said keeping people jailed and cutting off access to alternative programs won’t discourage crime, but encourage it. He said even short jail stays can cause the loss of jobs and houses. And he said that sending someone to drug court or mental health court offers real solutions.
“This bill robs the courts of the same weapons and tools that we have to combat making this a way of life for so many defendants,” Williams said.
Coco Papy of Savannah’s Deep Center said that the typical prisoner awaiting bail in the Chatham County jail is there for three days. At $74.51 a night, she said the bill could cost $287,000 a year for Chatham County alone.
“Who pays for it, and if this is just what it looks like in Chatham County, what will it look like across the state and in your districts?” Papy asked.
But Robertson said all those advocates were ignoring the concerns of crime victims.
“I did not hear one person show any compassion for the citizens of this state, the poor, the middle class and the wealthy, who work every day and want to live in a safe community.”
Follow Jeff Amy on Twitter at http://twitter.com/jeffamy.
Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.