Bond system makes being poor a crime, even without conviction

“We have a system of justice that treats you better if you’re rich and guilty than if you are poor and innocent.” 

-Bryan Stevenson

“The problem with money bail, for those who aren’t familiar with it, is that it puts a price tag on freedom.  It says to someone who is wealthy that no matter how dangerous you are you can buy your way out.”  

-Chesa Boudin

By John Cole Vodicka

This is a bail bonding company located on Lexington Road, a short distance from the Clarke County jail. There are two more such companies located near our jail, several others in downtown Athens, and even more dot the landscape in Oconee, Jackson and Madison Counties where they advertise their “ability” to spring people from area jails.

Here’s my take on the bail bond industry:

Pretrial liberty should not be a question of money. As one public defender explained to an Athens-Clarke County Superior Court judge last week during a bond reduction hearing for her jailed client: “Your honor, my client would not be in jail if he had money. A wealthy person charged with the same crime would be out of jail.”
The system of cash bail is aimed directly at the poor and people of color. Over the course of a year’s time, most of the folks in the Clarke County jail – who have not been convicted of the crimes for which they were arrested – languish in jail cells for days, weeks, months, even several years because they don’t have the monetary means required to gain their pretrial release. And if they are able to find the money to go their bail, it is usually money enough given to some predatory bonding company. In my opinion, bail bonding companies do little more than feed off a criminal punishment system that targets the least among us. 

In our more than two years of courtwatching, we’ve witnessed countless times where individuals caught up in the Athens-Clarke County legal system stay locked up in our jail not because they are guilty of the crime for which they were charged, not because they are a safety risk to the public and not because they are flight risks and won’t show up for their court dates. No, they sit in a jail cell because they have been told by a judge they cannot be released until they pay money to “The Man.” And more often than not this means forking over cash to a greedy and exploitative bail bond company. 

A bail bond company will charge someone 12 to 15 percent of the bond’s total amount. It is that money the defendant and his family will never see again. For example, if I were arrested tonight and my bond set at $3,000 tomorrow morning, I could do one of three things: 1) pay the entire amount in cash (which, upon conclusion of my criminal case would be refunded to me by the ACC Clerk of Court); 2) find someone whose property is worth at least $6,000 and is willing to post that property as collateral (again, under the assumption that I will show up for my court hearings); or, 3) give a bail bond company between $300 to $400. In turn, the bonding company promises the court that I’ll show up when I’m supposed to. Bonding companies rarely have to forfeit any money – more than 95% of ACC defendants return to court when they are given adequate notifications about court dates and offered supportive social services.  

Of the three options available to me, the “best” would be to pay the entire bond amount myself and avoid having to kiss away $400 that I could otherwise spend on food, housing and family needs. (It should be noted that there is also a fourth option that a judge can make available to me during a bond hearing: HAVING TO POST NO MONEY AT ALL. The law clearly states that someone who is not a danger to the community and is likely to show up for future court dates can be released from jail without having to post any money. It used to be called an “OR bond.” Today, it is termed an “Unsecured Judicial Release.” This fourth option is made available to many defendants in ACC. But not enough.

As a result, money bail imposed on ACC defendants and on prisoners nationwide is literally ruining the lives of millions of poor people and costing all of us unnecessary billions of dollars in incarceration expense every year. Last year nearly 12 million Americans spent some amount of time in jail (not prison), at a cost of $9 billion. On any given day in this country, 500,000 people are in jail because they cannot afford the cash bond they’ve been assessed. Since African Americans are detained at rates five times greater than whites, there can be no doubt that systemic racism drives the criminal legal system. Cash bail is the necessary fuel that helps keep the system running. 

While in jail and unable to purchase their release, pretrial prisoners lose jobs, are separated from family, are rendered less accessible to their attorney (if they have one), and, because they are locked up, considered by many to be guilty as charged. Worse still, research shows guilty pleas can be and often are extracted from those who are kept in jail for long periods of time simply because they cannot afford bail. They want out of jail and throw in the towel, abandoning their fundamental right to a presumption of innocence.

Our pretrial facilities are, in actuality, “debtors’ jails.” If they go to jail at all, rich people make bail. Poor people do not.

Not surprisingly, there are more than 150,000 bail bond agents across the land and they write $14 billion in bonds each year. The bail bond industry is a powerful lobby. The bail bond lobby here in Georgia gave substantial amounts of money to our governor and key legislators who make sure that cash bail is made mandatory for a variety of crimes, even misdemeanors. Bail bond companies serve the prison industrial complex well. But if the goal is to reduce our reliance on incarceration and repudiate any system that transforms legal process into punishment, we must abolish the cash bail system here in Athens-Clarke County and elsewhere. We must end wealth-based detention.

Doing this would be simpler than you might think. Susannah Karlson, a Brooklyn, NY public defender has said it well: “Most of my clients in jail don’t need a money bond to ensure that they’ll appear in court when they are supposed to. They don’t need an ankle monitor while they are out on bail. They don’t need a social worker. All they need is a phone call or a text message – a friendly reminder of their court date. A reminder and maybe bus fare.”

As of Sunday, 363 women and men were confined in the Clarke County jail.  

263 were African American.  
There were also 13 Latinx and 1 Asian American behind bars.  

31 women were locked away in our jail.  

One 73-year-old – George F. – remained in custody, along with one 67-year-old, one 66-year-old, three 65-year-olds, and one 63-year-old. All told, 52 people 50 years old and older were in confinement.  

There were four 18-year-olds and ten 17-year-olds in jail.  A 15-year-old, Marquise M. was incarcerated in the Gainesville, Ga., charged as an adult with murder.

Over the last seven days local law enforcement arrested and booked 98 people into the jail, 67 of whom were BIPOC.  

While checking Sunday’s jail roster for the oldest person arrested this past week I was shocked when I came across the name Michael G. Mr. G. was arrested this past Tuesday morning at 3:50 a.m. He was charged with misdemeanor battery/family violence. He spent 10 hours in jail and was released a little before 1 p.m. Tuesday afternoon. Michael G. is 86-years-old! He was born in 1935, the same year President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act into law. Magistrate judges are prohibited now from setting “no cash” bonds for anyone charged with family violence-related offenses. Judge Donarell Green went about as low as one can go in setting Mr. G.’s bond at $10. With a $13 “service” fee tacked on by the sheriff’s office, Mr. G. scraped up the $23 and left the jailhouse to return to his home in nearby Winterville.

John Cole Vodicka is a member of Oconee Street UMC and is one of the leaders of the Court Watch program.