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Bail Reform in Atlanta Has Been Successful: Don’t be Duped by Misleading Court Data, Especially in the Wake of the Cyberattack

Nearly 750,000 people are detained in jails across the country every day because of an inability to post bail. The costs are tremendous, both for the government as well as the individuals, their families, and the community. The purpose of bail is to secure the individual’s return to court, as well as to consider the risk release poses to the public. People who do not pose a public safety risk and are likely to return for their court date should not be locked in a jail cell only because they cannot afford to pay for release.

Atlanta’s bail ordinance, which became effective in March 2018, was the right move for a city like Atlanta that prides itself on its civil rights legacy.  And the ordinance has had its intended effect.  Since March 2018, about 3,064 people have been released on signature bonds under the ordinance.  These are people who otherwise would have been stuck in jail to await trial for petty offenses.  Further, because of the bail ordinance, community members have kept in their pockets a total of $3,110,850 – money that would otherwise have gone to enrich the bail industry.

But some people think Atlanta should go back to locking up indigent people for their poverty.  And they have seized on incomplete and misleading data to make their case.

In the Atlanta Journal-Constitutions October 4 article, “More defendants miss court dates since some cash bonds dropped,” a misleading picture of the impact of Atlanta’s new bail reform ordinance, passed by City Council just 6 months ago, emerged. The ordinance, which passed unanimously, authorized the Atlanta City Detention Center to release people with pending nonviolent misdemeanors or city ordinance violations on their own recognizance. The idea behind the ordinance was simple: poor people accused of minor offenses should not be sitting behind bars while those charged with the same offenses – but who can pay bail– await their court dates at home.

In an effort to monitor the implementation of the bail reform ordinance, the Council required a six-month review and presentation to the public safety committee by the Chief of Corrections. The Council also acknowledged that, along with eliminating cash bail for most minor offenses, the municipal court’s notification procedures would need to be updated and improved. On March 5, the Council adopted a resolution to study the court’s notification system and identify opportunities for improvement.

Just days later, the City of Atlanta was attacked by ransomware.  Many city services and programs were affected, including the courts. Almost immediately, the City acknowledged the severe impact the attack had on governmental functions and published a press release stating that the ransomware attack affected the ability to access court information.  Improvements to court notification systems that would help people make it to court were predictably put on hold.

The Atlanta City Council’s Public Safety Committee held the pre-planned 6-month review of the new system on September 25.  At that point, due to the ransomware attack, there was just over 60 days of post-bail ordinance data.  In an emotionally charged meeting, City of Atlanta Chief Judge Chris Portis stated that during April and May, because of the ransomware attack, the Court was unable to send court notifications to defendants. He went on to assert that Failures to Appear (FTA) had “doubled” in Municipal Court because of bail reform. There was no discussion of the fact that the Court had only 60 days of data, and that such data came immediately on the heels of a total shut down of the Court’s computer system. Neither a written report nor any explanation of how this data was collected by the Court, was presented to Council.  Alarmingly, the validity of this data was not questioned by any elected official, save for Councilmember Andre Dickens, who requested that raw data be provided before any conclusions be drawn.

The fact is that we have nowhere near the data we would need to reliably conclude that the bail ordinance has caused an increase in failures to appear in court.  Let’s start with the fact that the court’s numbers don’t add up. In his presentation, Chief Labat reported that fewer than 3,500 people arrested between March 1, 2018 and September 25, 2018 were even eligible for release on signature bonds under the ordinance.  Minutes later, however, Judge Portis told the committee that there were 4,120 “failures to appear” in court in the month of August alone. How could the new bail ordinance cause more people to miss court dates in one month (August) than were even eligible for bail reform signature bonds during the entire six-month review period?

Additionally, with the limited data available, we have no way of knowing that the persons failing to appear in court were the same people released on signature bonds pursuant to the ordinance. Any statistician will say that correlation is not causation, and to report conclusions about cause and effect without a thorough examination of the data is irresponsible and misleading.

Over 3,000 people charged with minor offenses who otherwise would have lost housing, jobs, and other necessary support were able to return to their community without having to pay for their freedom. According to Chief Labat, bail reform has saved the community $3 million, money that would have gone to the jail and to bail bond industry. This is a civil rights and fiscal victory for Atlanta. Let’s not go back to wealth-based detention because of incomplete data and a few unvetted claims at a city council meeting.