ATLANTA — Fewer people arrested in Georgia could be released on their own recognizance under bail-reform legislation that cleared the state Senate this week.
Calls have long arisen for Georgia judges to rely less on issuing signature, or own-recognizance, bonds that do not require arrested persons to pay a bail amount to be released from jail.
Critics say these bonds too often lead to people committing other crimes after they were recently let out of jail on their own recognizance.
But proponents of the practice argue large bail amounts tend to punish low-income persons arrested for minor offenses like petty theft or drug use, while wealthier defendants can spend their way free.
Senate Bill 402 would abolish signature bonds and require that any bond that has a set dollar amount would need to be paid in full to secure release.
Arrested persons could still be released on their own, but they would be issued “unsecured judicial release” bonds that do not list a dollar amount.
However, the bill would not permit those non-monetary bonds to be issued for several felony charges ranging from murder and rape to drug trafficking, DUI and criminal street gang activity.
The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Randy Robertson, said judges would still be given discretion to send offenders to treatment and diversion programs instead of jail.
Judges could also still set very low bail amounts to ease the financial burden on defendants if they wanted, he said.
Robertson, R-Cataula, said his proposal aims to keep violent offenders from being released prematurely from jail and to better reflect how much money – or lack thereof – defendants are actually paying for bail.
“The ongoing misuse of these bonds is creating an immediate risk to the state of Georgia,” Robertson said from the Senate floor.
Robertson, a retired major with the Muscogee County Sheriff’s Department, highlighted the case of 25-year-old Ahmad Coleman, who was arrested last October for allegedly opening fire near an Atlanta library, wounding four college students.
At the time, Coleman was out on his own recognizance with a $120,000 signature bond stemming from his arrest months prior for allegedly opening fire at an apartment complex.
The Senate passed the bill on Tuesday by a 46-8 vote. It now heads to the Georgia House of Representatives.
Opponents of Robertson’s bill worry expanding the kinds of crimes that would no longer qualify for non-monetary bonds could hurt lower-level offenders with less means to pay bail.
Zanele Ngubeni, an Atlanta defense attorney who spoke at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last week, said recognizance bonds have a track record of incentivizing defendants to show up for court hearings. State law is already tough enough to punish those who skip court, she said.
“Essentially, we’re perpetuating wealth-based detention,” Ngubeni said.
Jill Travis, executive director of the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, warned the bill could potentially limit how many people would qualify for alternative-sentencing programs despite Robertson’s assurances.
She called for language changes to make it clearer that judges could allow defendants to participate in pre-trial treatment programs.
“There’s no opportunity for pre-trial involvement anymore on a recognizance,” Travis said last week. “The only way to do this is using a bonding company, using cash or using property.”
But victims of crimes committed by offenders out on their own recognizance insist Georgia needs stricter rules on non-monetary bonds.
Daphne Jordan, an Atlanta resident who said her sister was shot by a repeat offender, dismissed the argument that curtailing signature bonds would disproportionately affect poorer people in jail for small-time offenses.
“When I hear people say [that] people who commit crimes don’t have the ability to pay for their bonds, then they should not commit crimes against people who are hard-working individuals who are out here trying to make a living,” Jordan said.