Alumni Help Atlanta End Cash Bail System

Keisha Lance Bottoms (J.D. '94)

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms (J.D. ’94) (center) signs an ordinance that eliminates cash bonds as a requirement to secure release for violation of city ordinances. Photo by Joshua Spruiel/City of Atlanta

Atlanta’s City Council, under the leadership of the newly elected Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms (J.D. ’94), has unanimously adopted an ordinance ending cash bail for most minor, non-violent offenses handled by Municipal Court.

Such crimes include jay walking, disorderly conduct, aggressive panhandling, urinating in public, loitering, driving without a license and traffic offenses. Traditionally, anyone unable to pay bail was jailed while those who could pay were not. Stories abound about jobs, public assistance and even custody of children lost because of the offenders’ inability to pay.

Actively supporting this ordinance are Mawuli Davis (J.D. ’02), of Davis Bozeman Law and a member of the mayor’s Transition Team, and Tiffany W. Roberts (J.D. ’08), adjunct professor and deputy director of the National Institute for Teaching Ethics and Professionalism. Professor Tanya Washington reviewed and made recommendations to the proposed ordinance.

“It has been an unbelievable amalgamation of brains, social consciousness and a will to make a change for the city,” said Davis, an activist on progressive issues. “To have a mayor with the will, and to have a city council debate the issue and pass it unanimously, says we are in a time where people have to be more concerned with progressive, social justice issues.”

Roberts and Davis were present to facilitate discussion and answer questions during the two-and-a-half hour council meeting.

“The Constitution prohibits court from using bail to hold people,” said Roberts, who committed to helping change the system after her experience as a public defender. “People who are on bail have not been convicted of a crime. Bail is supposed to be a condition of release so that people will come back to court.”

Opposition to the ordinance’s passage came from bail bondsmen as well as from some citizens who, misunderstanding what Municipal Court handles, feared violent criminals would be released.

“This is a definitive first step toward reform of our bail system made possible by the persistent efforts of lawyers, activists, organizations and organizers who continue to push and work for a more just and verdant system of laws,” said Washington. “I trust it will not be the last such effort.”

Roberts and Davis agree this is the first step. Both serve on the mayor’s Progressive Agenda Working Group and will recommend qualified membership for Mayor Bottoms’ commissions on criminal justice reform, housing affordability, homelessness, and jobs and workforce development. They will also seek existing resources to ensure the offenders’ return to court on their assigned date and to assist them in breaking the cycle that often leads to arrest.

While other cities are enacting similar ordinances, Davis believes Atlanta plays a unique role.  “As a city with incredible civil rights and human rights history, we should be on the right side of history and be leaders.

“The fact that we are part of this moment in history provides hope that the city is going forward on how vulnerable citizens are treated.”

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