Again the law falls most heavily on the most vulnerable, the poor. A few people, here and there, are waking up to the injustice of a system which penalizes only those who can’t afford it.
ATLANTA — The police arrested Randall McCrary, a mentally ill man, at a gas station on Oct. 22. They found him covered in his own waste and screaming at customers.
What happened next to Mr. McCrary, advocates say, was a depressingly common reality for poor people charged with minor crimes in Atlanta. The municipal court set his bail at $500, the predetermined amount for a disorderly conduct charge. Mr. McCrary, 45, is indigent and could not pay.
So he waited, in jail, for more than two and a half months, at great cost to both local taxpayers and Mr. McCrary himself. While he was detained, the federal government discontinued his disability checks, said Sarah Geraghty, a lawyer for the Southern Center for Human Rights, who filed a petition Monday demanding his release.
Sarah Geraghty of the Southern Center for Human Rights filed a petition asking Atlanta to release a man who couldn’t post a $500 bail. Credit Audra Melton for The New York Times
Ms. Geraghty said Mr. McCrary’s case exemplified the injustices inherent in Atlanta’s misdemeanor bail system, which resulted in hundreds of poor people being locked up each year, sometimes for long stretches, because they had been assigned bail amounts they could not pay. In 2016, at least 890 people were transferred from the city to the county jail after failing to make bail, the center found. They were held, many of them on minor charges like littering or driving without a license, for a total of 9,000 hours, costing taxpayers roughly $700,000.
The petition for Mr. McCrary generated some publicity, and on Tuesday, he was released after an anonymous donor posted his bail.
Ms. Geraghty and her allies are now pressuring Atlanta to embrace a national wave of bail reform that has already taken hold in places like Chicago, Houston, New Jersey and, most recently, Alaska. Those who support reform argue that detaining the working poor over small bail amounts can ruin careers and disrupt families. They note that jail time racked up while waiting for a case to be resolved can sometimes exceed the jail time prescribed for the offense itself. They argue that such detentions violate the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause, because it denies arrestees “the pretrial freedom made available to those who can pay for release for the same offense,” as Ms. Geraghty wrote in her petition.
And, they say, bail does nothing for public safety, using access to money rather than potential for danger to determine who goes free. “This is the right time for Atlanta to move away from wealth-based detention,” Ms. Geraghty said.
Earlier this month, the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta joined Civil Rights Corps, based in Washington, in sending a letter to Atlanta’s new mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, asking her to lead a change in the city’s bail system. The groups noted that they had forced changes in other Georgia cities by suing them.
But Atlanta already appears ripe for change. Ms. Bottoms has spoken candidly, and movingly, about the conviction of her father, the R&B singer Major Lance, on cocaine charges in the 1970s. “I learned very early on that good people sometimes make bad decisions,” she said in a biographical campaign video. Ms. Bottoms has pledged, in her agenda for her first 100 days in office, to create a criminal justice reform commission.
“When we know that we have people in the city of Atlanta who are incarcerated simply because they can’t afford to pay to get out of jail, then that’s certainly a concern,” Ms. Bottoms said in a news conference Thursday. “And that’s something I’ve asked our law department to take a very close look at, to see if there’s something that can immediately be done to remedy this.”
The Georgia Legislature is also likely to take up the matter of misdemeanor bail this session, part of a multiyear criminal justice reform effort led by the Republican governor, Nathan Deal.
Ms. Geraghty’s group has been combing the jail dockets to find people like Mr. McCrary, who had been detained for long periods for want of a few hundred dollars. In November, Ms. Geraghty filed another petition in Georgia Superior Court, demanding the release of a homeless man named Sean Ramsey.
Mr. Ramsey, 48, had been arrested on Sept. 19 for holding a cardboard sign at an intersection that read, “homeless please help.” The charge was illegally soliciting motorists in a roadway. A day later, a municipal court set his bail at $200, which he could not pay.
Then, it appears, Mr. Ramsey got lost in the system. He was not seen by a public defender, Ms. Geraghty said, even after Oct. 4, when court records show that his case was dismissed. He stayed in jail until Nov. 29 — more than 70 days — before the county solicitor reviewed Ms. Geraghty’s petition, and he was released.
Civil Rights Corps and the Southern Center for Human Rights have raised similar issues in Calhoun, Ga., a small city about 70 miles north of Atlanta, filing a federal lawsuit that resulted in a judge’s blocking the city’s policy of holding poor people who could not afford bail. The case argues that a preset schedule that assigns bail amounts to crimes without considering the defendant’s ability to pay is unconstitutional. The case is currently before the federal appellate court in Atlanta.
The Georgia Association of Professional Bondsmen and the American Bond Coalition, the state and national bail-bond industry groups, have filed friend-of-the-court briefs in support of Calhoun’s policy, arguing that the preset bail schedules do not violate the equal protection clause.
“Under the city’s bail schedule, a defendant’s bail amount is initially set to match the crime he is accused of committing,” the groups wrote in their brief to the appellate court, describing a system similar to Atlanta’s. “The schedule does not consider, let alone discriminate on the basis of, the accused’s wealth or poverty.”
In an interview, Charles Shaw III, the president of the state bond industry group, made another argument. He said that without bail, there was no incentive “for the defendant to reappear in court for purposes of the administration of justice. Because no one has stake in the game.”
That point is moot, of course, for those who cannot afford bail at all. And judges have other options, such as setting bail that the person owes only if they fail to appear in court.
Other grass-roots solutions have sprung up in the meantime. Dozens of groups around the country are offering to pay bail for people who cannot afford it. In Georgia, a coalition led by the activist group Southerners on New Ground, or SONG, has been collecting donations to pay bail for black women.
Since May 2017, said Mary Hooks, the SONG co-director, the coalition has bailed out more than 50 women arrested in the city of Atlanta, and more than 100 around the South.