Georgia House panel advances cash bail bill as clock winds down on 2022 Legislature

Georgia State Capitol on mostly sunny day

by Stanley Dunlap, Georgia Recorder [This article first appeared in the Georgia Recorder, republished with permission]

March 31, 2022

With just days left before the state’s 2022 legislative session’s scheduled end Monday, the fate of a bill that would require people accused of felonies to put up cash or property for bail now rests with the Georgia House.

On Thursday, Republican members of the House Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee advanced a plan that adds hundreds of felony charges to the list of violent crimes that require a bond in order for a person to be released from jail before trial.

Senate Bill 504 would roll back judicial reforms that provided judges with greater discretion to let people out of jail on their own recognizance if they signed a promise to appear in court.

The bill’s sponsor, Cataula Republican Sen. Randy Robertson, said he’s hoping to reduce confusion by ensuring that all felony charges require some type of collateral to prompt a court appearance, while still giving judges the latitude to set the bail amount.

The measure was amended to factor in whether a judge will let the accused enter into pre-trial diversion mental health, substance abuse and veterans accountability courts. The bill now heads before the House Rules Committee, which determines whether legislation will get onto the calendar for a floor vote.

“Accountability courts were a great solution to get individuals the help they need while they’re still a part of the criminal justice system,” Robertson said. “ But what some judges were doing was releasing people back into the community quickly prior to full vetting of the individual’s criminal history. And what that was resulting in is the individuals going out and re-offending.”

Criminal justice reform activists and experts say that cash bail requirements can unfairly punish people who cannot afford to pay a bond and that the likelihood of a person pleading guilty increases if they are unable to pay bail.

On Monday, district attorneys for Augusta-Richmond and DeKalb counties testified before legislators that adding all felonies to the bail restrictive lists could be counterproductive. Additionally, they said it is unrealistic to expect judges to set lower bond amounts for less serious felonies than are typically set for misdemeanors.

Robertson on Thursday blamed “activists” who have infiltrated the criminal justice system, including distinct attorney’s offices, for playing politics instead of following the law.

Hartwell Republican Rep. Alan Powell Thursday recommended that legislators use the bill as a prompt to clean up Georgia code to remove the dozens of antiquated offenses that are still considered felonies. Powell said he supports SB 504 since putting up money or property provides more incentive to show up in court.

“There needs to be a clear message to both the proponents and the opponents of this that DAs and judges are the ones who negotiate to set whatever the bond may be,” Powell said. “The bond needs to be commensurate to whatever the circumstance of that offense is.”

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