Atlantans Await City Council Vote To End Cash Bail
It should be a quick grocery run to a Walmart in Decatur for Kadijah Bouie.
“But me being pregnant, I end up tending to go to the baby aisle and see baby stuff,” says Bouie, giggling.
She’s eight months pregnant, and she can’t really afford this stuff. Her husband just wired her $45 from Texas, where he works. But that money is for food and bus fare for the week.
Back in August, Bouie had an argument with her roommate. She says he pulled a gun on her so she called police. Police records show they’d been fighting a lot. They both ended up in jail that night. Bouie was charged with misdemeanor battery. It was scary — morning sickness was just starting to hit her.
“I’m hungry. The only thing I can keep down is oranges, can I get some oranges? They was really, really mean, so it was really, really hard when I went in and I found out I was going to be in there for a while.
Bouie stayed locked up for three weeks because she could not pay her bail. By the time she got out, she’d lost her job at Walmart and needed a new place to live.
This is one version of a story that plays out for hundreds of Atlantans who may spend weeks or months in jail because of the city’s bail policy.
‘It Is A Two-Tiered System’
“Here’s how it works now,” said lawyer Sarah Geraghty with the Southern Center for Human Rights.
“People who can afford to pay are immediately released after booking. And those who cannot pay are detained as a result of that. The city jails are filled nightly with people charged with misdemeanors and ordinance violations only because they cannot pay,” she said. “It is a two-tiered system: one for people with money and one for people without money.”
It’s unconstitutional, according to Geraghty. The center has put legal pressure on the city and is one of a number of advocate groups pushing Atlanta to end its cash bail system.
A city ordinance to do that is up for a vote Monday.
During a work session last week, the head of Atlanta’s detention center, Chief Patrick Labat, walked the City Council president through what the new process would look like for her if she were arrested for something small.
“The procedures will be the same to make sure you’re not wanted for anything. At that point, this falls under the scope of you being able to sign your own self out. You’ll be processed for bond instead of being housed, and you’ll get out,” Labat said.
He supports the idea of changing the city’s bail system, as does Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and many City Council members. Similar bail reform efforts are happening across the country.
However, not everyone supports it.
Ending Cash Bail Has Critics
“I am just a small business owner with a family to support and employees who have families to support as well,” said Ginger Buffington Folger, with the Georgia Association of Professional Bondsmen.
Fewer people paying cash bails will hurt the bail bond industry. And they argue it will make the city less safe.
Folger told the City Council if they pass the ordinance, she’ll think twice before letting her high school daughter apply to Georgia State University.
“I urge you to stop and think before you vote to put more criminals on the street to harass the very people you depend on for your revenue and income.”
But supporters say fears about the dangers of people unable to pay bail are a distraction.
“They’re talking about criminals being released. Well, people right now, if you have money to pay your bail, you are released. And if you don’t have money, you are not,” said Dean Steed, a community organizer with Solutions Not Punishment Coalition.
Advocates Want More Policies Addressed
Whatever happens Monday, a change in Atlanta’s bail system is likely to pass in one form or another. But advocates who’ve worked on this issue say they still have major concerns about what other policies are needed to help people not get locked up in the first place, including increasing the number of violations police are able to give citations for.
“Cash bail makes the underlying economic problems that are causing people to be arrested worse. It makes our collective effort to relieve these problems, much more expensive,” George Chidi, with Central Atlanta Progress, told City Council members.
He said once the ordinance is passed, the city also needs to address the shortage of affordable housing and emergency shelters.
Others are advocating for better electronic reminder systems, transportation and other support to help people actually show up for court.
“So many people are getting [failures to appear] not because they don’t want to go to court to get it all figured out, but because they can’t get there — because of their jobs, their kids. You can’t bring your kids to court,” said Kate Shapiro, with Southerners on New Ground.
The organization has raised money and bailed out and provided legal support for more than 120 women across the South since last year as part of an initiative called the Black Mamas Bail Out.
One of them was Khadija Bouie.
“It was really hard, coming out and not having a job and having to start all the way back over,” she says.
She lives alone now in a motel room that costs her entire paycheck from Taco Bell. While money is extremely tight for her, Bouie did try to pay her bail with a credit card. Gathering the documents and navigating the bureaucracy to release that money for use proved to be impossible for her and her husband in the three weeks she was in jail. Advocates say it’s not an uncommon challenge for those who get locked up.
Managing her health and stress are now Bouie’s main priorities.
“I try not to eat like the really, really greasy food because my doctor said that I may be on the verge of pregnancy diabetes,” Bouie says.
Cooking is hard to do without a kitchen. Bouie has a slow cooker she squeezes in behind the TV. Besides work, she says she doesn’t get out much now. She’s terrified of getting in trouble again.
“Two days and I’ve been sitting in this room alone, and I haven’t seen my husband in four months,” Bouie says. Her typical nervous laughter deserts her for a moment as she takes stock.
In jail, Bouie was ready to plead guilty just to get out. She’s since decided to fight her case. She’s excited about her baby boy, but her savings are gone.
“I don’t have the extra money to make sure I have the stuff for him when he gets here, so it’s like, should I just give him up for adoption? Because I feel like I can’t take care of him,” Bouie says.
She’ll be back in court at the end of the month.
WABE’s Jim Burress contributed to this report