Finding your way out of Misdemeanorland

By John Cole Vodicka

I posted a $1 – yes, one dollar! – cash bond on Friday afternoon to get Terry B. out of jail. Mr. B. had been locked up nine days. He’d been charged with misdemeanor criminal trespassing/damage to property.

Because the State tacked on “family violence” to the charge, a new Georgia law prohibits any judge from setting a non-cash bond in Mr. B.’s situation. A good security (cash) bond must be set, forcing indigent defendants to find the money to gain their liberty.

Terry B. was arrested and jailed on July 7. A first appearance bond hearing was set to happen in Magistrate Court on July 9, but because Mr. B. was to appear later that same day in State Court with his public defender, he refused to appear in Magistrate Court. At some point it was decided by the Magistrate and State Court judges to forego the State Court appearance and instead have Mr. B. appear at a bond hearing in Magistrate Court on Saturday, July 10. At that hearing, Magistrate Judge Benjamin Makin set Mr. B.’s bond at $10 (Athens-Clarke County magistrate judges are routinely setting these mandatory cash bonds as low as they possibly can). On Saturday, Judge Makin imposed one condition on the $10 bond: Mr. B. was not to be released from jail until Monday, July 12, and then only to the investigator from the Public Defender’s office who would transport Mr. B. to Advantage Behavioral Health Services for an evaluation.

The sheriff’s office has been adding $13 fees to these $10 cash bonds, so Mr. B. was unaware that he would need $23 to be released from jail to get to his Advantage appointment on Monday morning. So, it did not happen. Mr. B.’s 15-year-old daughter attempted to raise the money but could manage to gather up just $15. As a result, Mr. B. was not able to post bond on Monday and he remained in jail. Consequently, he could not make his court-ordered appointment with Advantage. And then, because Judge Makin’s order specified that he could only be released to an employee with the PD’s office, he now needed his bond to be modified so that someone else could get him out of jail. And that didn’t happen until this past Friday, July 16, nine days after Mr. B. was first locked up.

Mr. B. was placed on the Friday (7/16) State Court jail call docket. “This is absolutely absurd!” State Court Ethelyn Simpson pronounced from the bench when learning of Mr. B.’s plight Friday afternoon. “I’ll go on the record. This (new law mandating cash bonds in family violence cases) is ridiculous! I’m reducing Mr. B.’s bond to $1.”

It was at this point that courtwatcher Jean Dixen and I, who were observing Friday’s jail call hearings, told Mr. B.’s public defender that we were ready and able to post bond for his client that afternoon. I left the courthouse, drove to the jail and waited for the revised bond order to make its way out to the sheriff’s office. That took a couple of hours, but eventually I was able to hand over a $1 bill from my wallet, sign the paperwork, and spring Terry B. from the hoosegow. When I asked if there was a $13 fee to pay as well, the deputy sheriff waved me off and shook his head no.

I’ve followed Mr. B.’s arduous journey through Misdemeanorlandfor more than a year. At 4:30 Friday afternoon, I shook his hand for the first time as we walked away from the jail to my car in the parking lot.

Some people involved in Mr. B.’s journey through Misdemeanorlandhave intimated that Mr. B. is crazy and that he needs in-patient mental health treatment. He needs to be medicated, they say. He needs constant surveillance by way of an ankle monitor.

Conversely, I’d like to pose this question: How sane is our criminal legal system that will keep a misdemeanor defendant locked up for nine days, at a hefty monetary cost to the taxpayer and a damaging physical and emotional cost to someone like Terry B.?

It has been said before: “Insanity is sorta in the eyes of the beholder.”

One of the most painful moments I’ve had to endure in an Athens-Clarke County courtroom happened last Wednesday afternoon in Magistrate Court. Jill L. had been arrested that Monday on yet another misdemeanor criminal trespassing charge, and on Wednesday had been transported from the jail to a special bond hearing at the courthouse.

The day before this special bond hearing, Tuesday, Judge Donarell Green presided over Ms. L.’s virtual first appearance hearing. At the hearing, Judge Green asked the 58-year-old Ms. L. if she had family in the ACC area. “I have daughter in Japan,” she told him from the jail booth. Whether or not he realized that Ms. L. was exhibiting delusional behavior, Judge Green continued: “You might want to contact your daughter.” “I don’t remember having a daughter,” the defendant replied. The judge set Ms. L.’s special bond hearing for the next day.

On Wednesday, I was standing just outside the courtroom talking with two attorneys when a deputy sheriff stepped out of the security elevator with the frail Ms. L. in tow. She is a very small woman and cannot weigh much more than 100 pounds. As she shuffled past us into the courtroom, she gave me a piercing stare. I nodded hello. Because of her slight build I couldn’t help but notice the belly chain was wrapped two times around her waist. Several lengths loose chain still dangled down to her knees.

Inside the Magistrate Courtroom, Ms. L. sat in the gallery two rows behind the defense table. She fidgeted, and her chains banged constantly against the wooden pew. Judge Donarell Green read aloud to her the trespassing charge. She’d been barred from a previous residence and was homeless. When she attempted to return to the apartment, she was arrested and jailed.

Ms. L.’s public defender told the judge she didn’t “have a solution” to her client’s plight and that Ms. L. was “being non-cooperative” with her. She told the court that Ms. L. had no money and hinted that a mental health evaluation would be in the offing. The prosecutor said she felt they were “between a rock and a hard place.” Judge Green asked Ms. L. if she knew where the Homeless Day Shelter was located. “I want to go back to France,” she announced.

The judge didn’t order her to fly to Paris. He did grant her an Unsecured Judicial Release (no-cash) bond, with the condition that she self-report to Advantage Behavioral Services within 48 hours. 

Here’s a bit of the backstory:

In December 2014, Jill L. was arrested for misdemeanor trespassing at the Athens MicroHotel. She plead guilty and was sentenced to 60 days in jail.

In 2015, Ms. L. was arrested, charged with entering an auto and jailed. She was initially found incompetent to stand trial, but then “restored to competency,” after which the State chose not to prosecute her. “No property was taken in the incident,” the district attorney explained. Still, Ms. L. had already spent 252 days in jail!

In February 2020, Ms. L. was arrested and charged with family violence. She “scratched her (adult) son,” the police reported.

Three months later she was arrested for giving false names to a law enforcement officer. First, she told the cop her name was Christian Alexander. Then, she was Jill Waters. Finally, she insisted her name was Mickey Mouse. Both the family violence and giving false name cases have yet to be resolved.

In March of this year, Ms. L. was arrested for trespassing at the Prince Avenue Subway restaurant. In May, she allegedly trespassed at the Racetrac on the Atlanta Highway.

And most recently, she’d been arrested and jailed on July 12 for trespassing at the apartment complex.

Jill L. is no stranger to Misdemeanorlandwhere we will find, as Alexandra Natapoff writes, “an essential and defining aspect of misdemeanor culture is that almost no one cares.”

Last Tuesday, after more than a decade, Sammy Lee W. left Misdemeanorland. Unfortunately, he’s been moved up one rung on the criminal legal system ladder, having been charged with felony shoplifting.

On July 14, Mr. W. allegedly entered a Family Dollar store and walked out without having paid for some merchandise. The value of the items was miniscule, but because this was Mr. W.’s fourth shoplifting offense (the other three were misdemeanors) he’s now headed to Superior Court. In Georgia, when someone has been convicted of three shoplifting charges, a fourth one becomes a mandatory felony. And if convicted on this latest charge, Mr. W. will have to spend one year in prison.

Like Jill L., Mr. W. has long been tangled up in Misdemeanorland’s web. Since 2011 he has been jailed and appeared in State Court on dozens of occasions. In addition to shoplifting, the 58-year-old Mr. W. has been busted again and again on misdemeanor charges of criminal trespassing, public intoxication, obstruction, disorderly conduct, possession of marijuana, simple assault, open container, harassing 911 calls. He’s had to answer to multiple probation violation allegations. If we add the number of days Mr. W. has spent in our jail over the last 10 years, he’s probably spent more than one year in confinement.

Magistrate Judge Donarell Green, recognizing that Mr. W. was not a violent threat to the public’s safety, nor was he a flight risk, granted him an Unsecured Judicial Release (no cash) bond. His felony shoplifting case will be heard at a date to be determined.

The youngster stood in the doorway of the State Court courtroom. He looked to be 5 or 6 years old.

He and his dad, Brian C., had been sitting outside in the waiting area until Mr. C.’s case was announced. Before Mr. C. entered the courtroom, he whispered to his son, telling him that he should remain outside in the lobby for the next few minutes.

So, there stood this little boy in the doorway, watching anxiously as his dad walked to the courtroom’s podium to learn what would happen next with his misdemeanor trespassing case.

As Judge Ethelyn Simpson began stressing the importance of Mr. C.’s obtaining legal counsel, the prosecutor interrupted her. “Your honor, the State is announcing it is dismissing the charge against Mr. C.”

I don’t believe that the young boy completely understood what had just been announced, but I do know that when he saw his father clasp his hands together and smile, he understood nothing bad had just happened. “You’re free to go, Mr. C.,” Judge Simpson told Mr. C.

As Brian C. exited the courtroom his child began smiling, too. The two of them embraced, then walked to the fifth-floor elevator. Alleluia. And bye-bye, Misdemeanorland.

Monday night, 370 women and men were confined in the Clarke County jail. 

273 of this total were African American.

There were also 11 Latinx behind bars.  

32 women were locked away in our jail. 

76-year-old Lawrence B. replaced the 73-year-old George F. as the oldest person in custody. Mr. B. had been locked up for one week, Mr. F. now for one year. Also in custody was one 67-year-old; one 66-year-old; one 65-year-old; two 63-year-olds and two 62-year-olds. All told, 57 people 50 years old and older were in confinement.

There were three 18-year-olds and ten 17-year-olds in jail.  A 15-year-old, Marquise M. was incarcerated in the Rockdale (near Conyers) kiddie prison, charged as an adult with murder. 

Over the last seven days local law enforcement arrested and booked 112 people into the jail, 70 of whom were BIPOC.  The oldest person arrested last week was 76. The youngest were five 17-years-olds.

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