Gov. Nathan Deal unveiled the final phase of his criminal justice overhaul on Wednesday, outlining a plan that would give judges more leeway to forgo cash bail for poor defendants accused of low-level offenses.
The legislation, Senate Bill 407, would require that judges consider a defendant’s ability to pay in setting bail and would give law enforcement officials flexibility to issue citations instead of criminal charges for some traffic-related offenses and other violations.
The legislation takes aim at a bail system that’s come under increasing scrutiny in Georgia and across the nation. Civil rights groups claim jailing poor people simply because they lacked money for bond violates federal laws, and several lawsuits in Atlanta and elsewhere have challenged the practice.
It’s the final phase of Deal’s eight-year effort to remake the state’s criminal justice system. He’s championed earlier legislation to expand accountability courts, give judges more discretion over sentencing, divert more low-level offenders from costly prison beds and boost funding for re-entry programs for released inmates.
The governor said in a statement the legislation would lay the “foundation for a more equitable criminal justice system and bring us another step forward in making Georgia a safer, more prosperous place to call home.”
The state now gives judges little flexibility in setting bail for most defendants. While the law allows judges to forgo bond for some defendants facing felonies, it requires judges to set bail for those facing misdemeanor charges.
“Consequently, the crucial question for misdemeanants in Georgia is not whether they will get bail, but the amount at which it will be set,” read a report published Wednesday from Deal’s Council on Criminal Justice Reform.
Deal cast his proposal as a way to help shift the state’s focus on “the most serious and violent offenders” while saving counties more taxpayer dollars. About 64 percent of inmates in Georgia jails are awaiting trial, and many of them are being held behind bars because they failed to pay bail.
He is likely to face fierce pushback from law enforcement groups who are wary of loosening bail bond restrictions and concerned with other parts of the measure that limit some first-time offenders convicted of felonies to a year of probation.
But it also includes a provision intended to win some critics over: Tougher prison sentences for gun-related offenses.
A separate proposal in his package, Senate Bill 406, would require criminal background checks for staffers who care for the elderly in nursing homes or other assisted living facilities. They would also have to participate in the FBI’s background check database.
The debate over the legislation comes as some local governments embrace more strident changes to cash bail systems.
The city of Atlanta last week approved new city-wide restrictions on cash bonds. And Democrat Stacey Abrams, a candidate for governor, said Tuesday she would eliminate cash bail if she’s elected.