Law-enforcement professionals and judges testified at a Georgia Senate hearing Wednesday largely to consider the impact of pretrial release on violent crime in Atlanta and elsewhere, with particular scrutiny being placed on “signature bonds.”
Jeff Hamling, a representative of the Georgia Association of Professional Bondsmen (GAPB), gave the Senate Public Safety Committee a rundown of statistics pertaining to defendants who have been let out of jail under these arrangements. Signature bonds permit prosecutors and judges to release alleged offenders per a signed agreement that the defendants will report promptly for trial. Technically, these bonds have dollar amounts but they do not require defendants to deposit any cash or collateral.
Originally, signature bonds were created to dispense with unnecessary pretrial jailing of those accused of first-time, nonviolent offenses, i.e., those unlikely posing little flight risk. But policymakers and experts soon sensed these arrangements were being utilized excessively.
According to data from the GAPB, 29,711 defendants were released on unsecured bonds from January 1, 2017, to October 16, 2021. Those bonds amounted to over $232 million for 60,148 offenses. Those offenses include 67 counts of murder, 114 counts of rape and 7,861 counts of theft.
The rates of failure to appear in court among those granted this type of bond have been striking: 31.78 percent in 2017 and 34.05 percent in 2018. While those rates have fallen to just 1.69 percent so far this year, Hamling attributed the decline to high numbers of cases in the last couple of years. With regard to the Municipal Court of Atlanta specifically, he said, failure-to-appear rates have doubled between 2018 and 2021.
“We are seeing this as a big problem in certain jurisdictions,” Hamling said, citing the Athens and Columbus areas as well.
GAPB ascribed the explosion of unsecured releases to criminal-justice reforms enacted several years ago by former Gov. Nathan Deal (R).
In January, a new state law went into effect to prohibit signature bonds for defendants accused of homicide, armed robbery, kidnapping, rape and several other forms of aggravated sexual assault. (The bonds are still permitted for offenses such as simple battery, simple assault, third-degree cruelty to children and burglary.) Hamling said that GAPB continues to see some judges granting unsecured releases for offenses for which they’re now disallowed.
GAPB has also found that judges who have been appointed to their current seats have contributed to the prevalence of unsecured releases for restricted offenses much more than elected judges have: about 93 percent versus seven percent.
At the hearing, GAPB agreed to provide committee Chairman John Albers (R-Roswell) with a list of judges who are not following the new law, Senate Bill 402 of 2020. That list is not yet public but Albers indicated he may make it so after giving judges a month to get into compliance with Senate Bill 402.
“We’ve all got to follow the law,” he said. “And this is not meant to be punishment to anybody, but these numbers are pretty straightforward and the law’s the law that we have to follow.”
At no point was it suggested that any judges at the hearing are among those who have continued to grant unsecured releases to defendants covered by Senate Bill 402. Judges who testified included Chief Superior Court Judge Christopher Brasher (Fulton County), Superior Court Judge Tain Kell (Cobb County), State Court Judge Wesley B. Tailor (Fulton County), Probate Court Judge Thomas Lakes (Harris County), Magistrate Court Judge Quinn M. Kasper (Cobb County), Municipal Court Judge Lori B. Duff (Monroe), and Municipal Court Judge Billy Tomlinson (Garden City, Pooler, and Port Wentworth).
The testifying judges affirmed their commitment to the current law. Some of them, particularly Brasher, said however that judges’ ability to grant pretrial release for many defendants remains important because they believe jails would otherwise be severely overcrowded. He said there are 3,100 people currently in the Fulton County Jail, which is 600 over capacity.
“We have a full jail,” he said, noting the Fulton County Board of Commissioners are considering building new jail at a cost of about $400 million. “Those are the things that we balance when we make those [pretrial release] decisions.”
One positive development discussed at the hearing was the success Atlanta’s police force has had in reducing violent crime in that city over the last few months. Although in early June homicide cases had risen 58 percent above their rate at the same time the previous year, Police Chief Rodney Bryant said homicides are now at about 15 percent over the previous year.
Atlanta’s ability to increase police hiring at a time when many cities have difficulty hiring enough officers was attributed in no small part to a 15-percent increase in the city’s public-safety budget and robust salary-and-benefits packages for officers.
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