Atlanta City Hall Atlanta City Hall (Photo: John Disney/ALM)

 

After hours of listening to criminal defense and civil rights lawyers along with justice activists seeking an end to the practice of keeping people in jail on minor charges only because they have no money to pay bail—when wealthier citizens leave—Atlanta City Council voted unanimously Monday evening to allow signature bonds for certain nonviolent misdemeanor offenses.

The council voted 13-0 to stop requiring money bail for minor crimes such as loitering, trespassing and driving without a license. The approved ordinance does not affect those charged with violent offense and more serious crimes, who will still go before judges for bond determinations.

Lawyers with the Southern Center for Human Rights helped draft the ordinance after calling on newly installed Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms to end money bail. The new law already has the mayor’s support and will take effect within 30 days of her signature.

“Today was a tremendous win for fairness and equality in Atlanta,” the Southern Center’s executive director, Sara Totonchi, said in a news release following the vote Monday evening. “Today, Atlanta joined cities like Chicago, Nashville, Birmingham, New Orleans and others that have recently ended their use of wealth-based detention to jail indigent citizens awaiting trial for petty offenses.”

The money bail system has caused prolonged detention of thousands of poor Atlanta citizens and was a “stain on our city’s national reputation as a civil rights leader,” Totonchi said. She added the newly adopted ordinance will “put an end to experiences like that of our client Sean Ramsey.” Ramsey was mentioned several times during the hearing Monday. He was arrested for holding up a sign that read “homeless, please help.” He spent 72 days in jail because he couldn’t afford the $200 bond.

“So many others were similarly jailed because they didn’t have the money to pay small bail sums for offenses like littering or driving without a license,” Totonchi said.

The Southern Center’s managing attorney, Sarah Geraghty, spoke during the public hearing portion of the council meeting Monday urging the members to approve the ordinance. “It’s not radical to ask that people without money should be treated the same way as people with money,” she told the council.

Civil rights attorney Mawuli Davis of Davis Bozeman was among many lawyers speaking in support of the new ordinance. Davis took on the group that made up the most vocal critics of the change—the bail bond business lobby.

“We are asking you to support the people and not the profiteers,” Davis said. “That’s what it’s about, and it’s dead wrong.”

One of the lawyers urging the council to end money bail was former DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis, who was convicted of attempted bribery in a trial that the Georgia Supreme Court later determined was unfair. The high court overturned Ellis’ conviction in 2016—after he had served eight months in prison—and the State Bar of Georgia restored his license.

Ellis said the ordinance was a “necessary first step” toward ending money bail. He pointed out that it does not allow those convicted of crimes to go free or those accused of violent crimes.

“I don’t discount anyone’s victimization. I was a victim myself,” Ellis said. “I was a victim of the criminal justice system.”