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6 Months In, The Battle For Atlanta Bail Reform May Just Be Starting

On Tuesday night, an audience, along with Atlanta City Council, heard information and early numbers regarding the city’s bail reform policy.
On Tuesday night, an audience, along with Atlanta City Council, heard information and early numbers regarding the city’s bail reform policy.
Credit Lisa Hagen / WABE
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Atlanta City Council got a first look at the impacts of its bail reform policy Tuesday night, and so far, it’s not a pretty picture.

Early numbers show the rate of people failing to return to court after being released without bail has doubled over the past year. But legal and community advocates say there are a few reasons the data on offer are flawed.

It’s been six months since Atlanta implemented an ordinance aimed at eliminating bail for a range of nonviolent traffic and nuisance offenses. But less than one month after it passed, a massive ransomware attack hit the city, which has hurt data collection.

The Southern Center for Human Rights said it’s been requesting data, including the number of people who have failed to appear in court, from city and court officials for months.

“The court responded in a fully transparent way and said that [because of the cyberattack] they just did not have the data to cover all of the six-month period,” Southern Center attorney Ateeyah Hollie told council members. “They have no data for March, for April, May or June. Four months out of the six-month review period.”

On Tuesday night, Atlanta Municipal Court Chief Judge Chris Portis revealed the number of people failing to appear back in court, or “FTAs,” for July.

“For July 2017, we had 2,073 FTAs. For July 2018: 4,062.”

The apparent spike is a boon for those skeptical of bail reform.

“The conclusion here — the elephant in the room — is that this is really just a bad law,” said City Council member Michael Julian Bond.

He said the court’s numbers should call into question the entire plan to close or sell the Atlanta City Detention Center. Mayor Keisha Lance Bottom has said the dramatic drop in detainees there due to reforms to bail, reclassifying marijuana offenses and pre-arrest diversion have made the facility a financial burden.

Corrections officials say about 130 people are detained at the city jail now, compared to an average of 700 last year.

But supporters of the bail policy say raw numbers from a single month leave out key details about the way changes have been implemented.

Maria Ptucha, with Southerners on New Ground, has been monitoring the municipal court for months since bail reform took effect.

“The ordinance is not being applied,” Ptucha said. “There are people who’ve been locked up and detained who, as far as we can tell, have no reason to be there based on the legislation you’ve passed.”

By far, the biggest complaint from advocates for bail reform is that the city has failed to update the way it notifies people of their court dates.

“In March, City Council unanimously passed a resolution that would require a 30-day funded study to determine the ways in which people could be better notified about their court dates,” said Tiffany Roberts, with the Southern Center for Human Rights. “None of that has happened, on top of the cyberware attack.”

She believes a text message notification system could hold the key to getting people back to court on time.

Council members agreed to meet with reform advocates again next month.