Ga. county commission passes no-cash bond measure
The commission has voted to stop requiring cash bail for people accused of violating ordinances, allowing them to be released on their own recognizance
Athens Banner-Herald, Ga.
ATHENS, Ga. — The Athens-Clarke County Commission has voted to stop requiring cash bail for people accused of violating Athens-Clarke County ordinances, allowing them instead to be released on their own recognizance.
Commissioners and criminal justice reform advocates hailed the commission's unanimous vote, but also said "The Freedom Act of Athens-Clarke County, Georgia" is just a beginning as the commission explores what it can accomplish locally in reforming a criminal justice system many believe penalizes the poor and African Americans.
"It's just the tip of the iceberg," said District 6 Commissioner Jerry NeSmith. A recent study found that 40 percent of people in the local jail have been diagnosed with mental illness, often with drug problems, he said.
Many could be taken to a behavioral crisis center rather than "a more expensive and less effective" choice such as jail, NeSmith said.
In jail, mental health professionals working on contract make decisions regarding those with mental issues, but many are already under treatment with Athens' Advantage Behavioral Systems, he said.
"They're not necessarily getting any treatment, but they are getting punished," NeSmith said.
"It's only one step," agreed District 5 Commissioner Tim Denson. Like others on the commission and among the public who spoke to commissioners Tuesday, he called for further steps such as compensation for prisoners' labor. On a national scale, companies make billions off unpaid inmate labor, he said.
More initiatives are coming, said Athens-Clarke County Mayor Kelly Girtz, citing a "continuum of activity."
An effort has already begun in Athens-Clarke County Municipal Court to notify defendants of court dates using text messaging and e-mail, he said. And a citizen advisory board to the police department will launch some time this summer, Girtz said.
This summer, authorized by a law the 2018 state legislature passed, police will be able to issue citations to people accused of committing a number of low-level misdemeanor offenses rather than arresting them, he said.
The government is also building a longitudinal data management system that could follow people from their arrest up through a transfer out of state custody into the local community, Girtz said.
Prevention is the best way to keep people out of the criminal justice system, and the government is taking a step in that direction this weekend with the rewewal of the "Grand Slam" youth program, he said.
"I believe this is a step in the right direction," said Mokah-Jasmine Johnson of The Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement, one of a number of people who praised the commission for their vote Tuesday.
"This isn't about slapping people on the wrist," said April Brown, chair of the Clarke County Libertarian Party, but a step toward eliminating a costly and ineffective system that results in people having their lives ruined "by getting caught with a dime bag when you're 20."
Others expressed caution. District 7 Commissioner Russell Edwards noted that a bill introduced but not passed in the state legislature this year could undo what the commission had just done.
"That bill will likely be back next session," he said.
District 3 Commissioner Melissa Link noted that officers still have the discretion to make an arrest on a charge such as disorderly conduct. A community advisory board can help "set parameters" for officers' discretion, she said.
"The police are using their discretion, and it's an abuse of their discretion the way they're using it," Broad Street resident Mary Bagby told the commissioners.
©2019 Athens Banner-Herald (Athens, Ga.)