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Atlanta Bail Reform Is Leaving Behind Homeless and Mentally Ill People

A number of people spent multiple days at the Atlanta City Detention Center for low-level offenses, including for driving while using a cell phone and for walking in the roadway.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo courtesy of the Fulton County Jail Facebook.

In late March, a 26-year-old man sat in the Atlanta City Detention Center for at least six days after allegedly using a cell phone while driving. A 29-year-old woman was detained for at least four days for allegedly driving without proper vehicle tags. And a woman and a man were incarcerated for two and 12 days for walking in the roadway.

At the end of that month, Atlanta held 94 people for low-level offenses—failure to stop at a stop sign, possession of marijuana, shoplifting, and fighting, according to the city’s Department of Corrections roster—yet many people remained in pretrial detention for days. That’s most likely because those incarcerated were disproportionately poor or living with a mental illness, and couldn’t afford the bond set by a municipal court judge.

“The reality is that a lot of people who populate our local jails are people who are homeless [and] people who have psychiatric disabilities,” said Sarah Geraghty, a managing attorney at the Southern Center for Human Rights, “and by definition those are going to be people who cannot afford to pay small, preset bail bonds to buy their liberty.”

In total, more than 2 million people with a mental illness are booked into jails each year.

Nationwide, people incarcerated in jails are roughly seven times more likely than the general population to have a serious mental illness, according to the Prison Policy Initiative and the Bureau of Justice Statistics. In total, more than 2 million people with a mental illness are booked into jails each year.  

In February 2018, advocates like Geraghty pushed Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms to enact a bail reform ordinance, under which the city pledged to stop seeking cash bonds for people who break certain municipal laws. “Poverty will no longer be criminalized in the city of Atlanta,” Bottoms boasted to a national conference of U.S. mayors this year. But jailers still managed to incarcerate people who either had an inability to pay cash bail or shouldn’t have been in jail at all, advocates told The Appeal.

Spokespersons for Bottoms and Howard did not immediately respond to The Appeal’s requests for comment.

Bail as wealth discrimination

Cash bonds for low-level offenses devastate low-income families. The Southern Poverty Law Center has called it “a form of wealth-based discrimination prohibited by the Constitution.” Jill Cartwright, a Georgia organizer for Southerners on New Ground, said her group established a court watch program to track how judges were implementing bail reform in Atlanta. The preliminary data have been disappointing, she said.

“We’ve seen judges not even asking if people can afford bail,” Cartwright told The Appeal. “They’re not asking what’s the impact of you being in bail, if you have a job, or what would happen to your family. If you can’t afford bail, most likely you are missing work and can’t pay your rent, and your child is not being cared for. That’s just not acceptable, especially when you haven’t been convicted of anything.”

If you can’t afford bail, most likely you are missing work and can’t pay your rent.

Jill Cartwright Southerners on New Ground

Those who can’t pay bail in Atlanta are often transferred to the Fulton County Jail. In 2016, at least 890 people were transferred from the city jail to the county jail, according to a Southern Center analysis. Those defendants were detained for a collective 9,000 days, at a cost of approximately $700,000 to taxpayers, before their cases ended or until a judge reduced their bail amounts.

Languishing in county jail

Fulton County Jail is notorious for its alleged abuses and inadequate care of people with a mental illness or substance use disorder—and it’s also the deadliest of Georgia’s 145 county jails. Between 2007 and 2017, approximately 50 people jailed in the 2,600-capacity facility died there. A woman incarcerated there has attempted suicide twice since October, when she was held on $500 bail and placed in solitary confinement after allegedly refusing to leave a mall where she was “proselytizing.” And this month, 18-year-old Tyrique Jameal Tookes was found dead in his cell after he spent nearly two months at the jail; he was being held on an $8,000 bond for alleged theft and complained of chest pain over the two weeks leading up to his death.

But DA Howard is seeking to expand the number of offenses that render defendants ineligible for pretrial release and to further limit the release of people he described as “repeat offenders.” On May 10, Howard cited the case of a 17-year-old boy accused of raping a 54-year-old woman three days after he was released on bond for an unrelated criminal offense.

Bail reform advocates say fearmongering over bail reform policies is misplaced. Although failures to appear—instances of people not returning to court—had increased by 40 percent since the bail ordinance was implemented, people who miss court tend to cite forgetfulness or circumstances beyond their control, not a desire to be on the run from the law.

Time for real reform

More than 6,000 people have been released or diverted from the jail because of the Atlanta bail ordinance, according to city corrections officials. “Over $3 million that would have been paid to the bail industry,” Geraghty said, “remained in the pockets of loved ones and people in the criminal legal system.” At the end of March, city records indicated there were 94 people detained at the Atlanta City Detention Center, compared to an average of 473 in the fiscal year 2018.

But local activists believe the bail ordinance doesn’t go far enough. Even in a majority-Black city, with African American leaders at the helm of City Hall and the district attorney’s office, representation doesn’t necessarily remedy injustice, Cartwright said.

“These Black faces are just that, but they are also the faces of mass incarceration, gentrification and eminent domain, [and] of diverting resources from where they are needed the most,” Cartwright said. “To make a real impact and make a tangible shift, there has to be a deeper commitment to equity and not just doing things that will make for a good headline.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the role of the Fulton County district attorney’s office in setting cash bail for municipal violations. Municipal court judges, not DA Paul Howard, set bail for defendants jailed at the Atlanta City Detention Center.