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Civil Rights

Attorneys Take on Atlanta’s Oppressive System of Bails and Bonds

— January 17, 2018

When police came to arrest Randall McCrary, they found the 45-year old in an unstable state.

Covered in his own waste and screaming at convenience store customers, officers took the mentally ill man into custody some four months ago.

Once in jail, McCrary couldn’t afford to leave. A municipal court set his bail at $500, customary for disorderly conduct charges. But McCrary didn’t have enough money to pay his way out of jail.

He stayed for another two-and-a-half months, costing taxpayers thousands of dollars.

The Southern Center for Human Rights say it’s an all-too-familiar story – an impoverished adult in Atlanta left to languish in lock-up for a rather minor offense. And the everyday, hardworking taxpayer wasn’t the only one to suffer, either.

McCrary himself hurt when the state cut off his disability checks for being temporarily incarcerated.

SCHR attorney Sarah Geraghty says McCrary’s case is exemplary of the injustices inherent to Atlanta’s mandatory misdemeanor bail system. Hundreds of poor people are locked up each year – some for long stretches – simply because they can’t pay to be released after committing some petty crime or another. In 2016 alone, nearly 900 people were transferred from the city jail to county after failing to make bail.

Some were caught driving without licenses.

Others had been stopped for littering.

In total, they served 9,000 hours and cost taxpayers the better part of a million dollars.

The injustice of running what amounts to a pauper’s prison prods reform advocates like Geraghty to press Atlanta for charge. They say that bail amounts too hard for the impoverished man or woman can disrupt their lives irreparably, often forcing incarceration for longer than a crime’s prescribed punishment.

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

“This is the right time for Atlanta to move away from wealth-based detention,” said Geraghty, who noted the decisions to incarcerate or set free was being based on access to finances rather than the risk to reoffend.

“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,” said Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who’s own father had once been locked up on drug charges. “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.”

While the mayor is trying to effect change from the top, Geraghty and her team have been combing through jail logs to find other inmates like McCrary.

Among them, astonishingly, was a 48-year old man named Sean Ramsy.

Arrested on September 19th, Ramsy was holding a sign that said “homeless please help.” Police picked up and registered a charge of illegally soliciting motorists on a roadway.

The courts offered to let Ramsy, who didn’t have a job or any stable source of income, loose on bail for $200.

And then he simply disappeared into the system, without a lawyer, advocate, or any resources and legal know-how.

He stayed in jail for close to three months, being released only after Geraghty’s team submitted a petition for review.


Bail Was $500, Money He Didn’t Have. Atlanta Faces Calls for Change.

Obama administration challenges the money bail system: Can people be kept in jail just because they are poor?

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