Last legislative session, outgoing Gov. Nathan Deal embarked on one last ambitious endeavor: addressing the state’s problematic cash-bail practices. And in April 2018, the Legislature approved a bail measure that Gov. Deal ultimately signed into law.
The statute, however, bears some serious flaws. It laudably states that judges shall consider defendants’ financial circumstances when setting bail. But the measure’s language is vague, giving judges a great degree of leeway to do both good and potentially bad. Furthermore, the law does not fully address the system’s shortcomings. Rather, Georgia’s bail policy may continue to effectively criminalize poverty, lead to more crime and weigh down taxpayers with unnecessary financial burdens.
There is an urgent need to fix the system, but Georgia needs a champion to lead this effort. As January 2019 quickly approaches, there will be a new occupant in the governor’s mansion. Whoever that might be, he or she ought to assume Gov. Deal’s mantle of criminal justice reform and fully tackle cash bail’s shortcomings.
As it stands in Georgia, after alleged offenders are arrested and booked into local jails, a judge sets a cash bail for their release. Bail is meant to guarantee that once freed, defendants will return for their court date. If they cannot post bail, they risk languishing in jail until their day in court.
On any given day in Georgia, there are around 43,000 people housed in the state’s county jails, and many remain there for months at a time. Most of these inmates have not been convicted; rather, they are awaiting trial. The majority of these people are accused of minor crimes, and many remain in jail because they are simply too poor to make bail. This policy, in essence, criminalizes poverty by keeping people in jail longer than necessary because they are underprivileged.
The cash-bail system is problematic in other ways, too. Placing individuals in local jails for extended periods of time adversely affects public safety. The longer someone is housed in county lockup, the more likely he or she is to break the law once released. While jailed, residents risk learning criminal behavior as their personalities are reoriented toward their environment. In fact, when compared to inmates released after less than 24-hours, lower-risk inmates jailed for 24-hours face a 17 percent increased probability of committing a crime within the next two years. Those who remained in jail for up to a week have 35 percent increased re-offense rate, and after two weeks in custody, they are 51 percent likelier to commit an infraction than those who are released within a day. Thus, policymakers have a vested public safety interest to release from jail those who do not necessarily need to remain in custody.
If lawmakers need another excuse to revisit cash bail, they need not look any further than the bail policy’s drag on state and local treasuries. Housing individuals in local jails is expensive. It can cost roughly $1,000 a month to shelter each resident, and with over 40,000 currently housed in lockup, Georgians likely pay around $516 million a year to keep inmates in custody.
There are secondary costs associated with Georgia’s cash-bail system as well. Since an untold number of people are held in jail for months at a time simply because they cannot afford bail, they eventually face a host of hazards when released. Inmates are liable to lose their jobs and housing due to extended absences from work while incarcerated. And when they are finally freed, they risk re-entering society homeless and unemployed, meaning they are likely to pursue government assistance — adding to taxpayers’ burden.
Gov. Deal and many others have recognized the folly of this policy. In fact, beyond the Peach State’s borders, there have been successful attempts to reform the system. Orange County, Florida State Attorney Aramis Ayala, for example, recently announced that her office will no longer request cash bail for minor crimes like driving without a license, panhandling or loitering. Likewise, the state of California enacted a landmark law that requires no bail for individuals accused of petty misdemeanors, so long as they do not pose a flight or public safety risk. The bottom line is that the government and society get nothing in return for keeping these individuals in jail indefinitely. Yet, they have much to lose if they continue to do so.
These are certainly new paths that Georgia’s next governor should explore. As the old administration peacefully transitions into the new, there are few better ways to commemorate Nathan Deal’s legacy and promote good policy than further reforming Georgia’s cash-bail system.
Marc Hyden is the Southeast region director of the R Street Institute, and he is a longtime Georgia resident. You can follow him on Twitter at @marc_hyden.