Criminal Justice Reform: Is it on the way?

Local News Update
Athens-Clarke County, Georgia
March 2019

The Mayor and Commission had an important work session on March 20, 2019 about criminal justice reform. It was disappointing, but some progress is still being made.

If we want to see more progress, more quickly, we’ve got to speak out!

Email your commissioner!

Email the mayor!

Email the solicitor!

Attend the mayor and commission voting meeting on April 2, 2019 at 6pm at City Hall (301 College Ave) and speak your mind during public comment.

Our progressive mayor and commission want to do the right thing, but they may need a push.

You can watch the full work session from March 20, 2019 here.


Will Athens be the next city in Georgia to decriminalize? And what about bail reform, inmate labor and an oversight board for the police. Is it finally time for progress on criminal justice reform in Athens? I’ve got the answers, coming up!

In February at the Federation of Neighborhoods, Commissioners Davenport and Denson had strong reactions against the concept of unpaid inmate labor.

Commissioner Davenport: "There are no kids in this room so I'm about to say hell no! That's inhumane, that's slavery."
Commissioner Denson: "To me, it's disgusting. It makes me so angry that we can accept this. There are only 5 states still, that do zero dollars, no compensation inmate labor.
Every one of those states is in the south, south of the Mason-Dixon line."

Has there been any progress on this issue since then?

I can tell you with certainty that $4 a day is not what Tim had in mind. It sounds like there was some push-back, both from other members of the commission and from staff. Even with the full support of the commission, the county might not be able to easily afford more right now, without raising property taxes. Athens is getting $3.8 million dollars a year in free labor from inmates. $4 a day for inmate labor would make us the best paying county in Georgia. It’s probably the highest amount that has a chance of passing right now.

So, that’s disappointing. We’re off to a bad start here, but will they at least decriminalize cannabis so fewer people find themselves in jail in the first place?

What advocates have been asking for is a parallel ordinance. And that’s not full decriminalization, because it would still be illegal under state law. But the ACCPD would at least have the option of citing people under the parallel ordinance instead of state law, and giving a small fine, like a parking ticket, without taking them to jail. Atlanta and Clarkson already have parallel ordinances. Will Athens be next?

Unfortunately, the answer seems to be no. While those other cities have Solicitors that work directly for the mayor and city council, Solicitor CR Chisholm here in Athens is an elected official. To put it bluntly, that makes him a bit more difficult to boss around. Solicitor Chisholm believes that citing cannabis users under a parallel ordinance would be a violation of his oath to uphold state law, and even if such an ordinance passed the commission, he has stated that he would refuse to go along with it and would continue charging people under the harsher state law.

Just FYI, Solicitor Chisholm was elected last May for a 4 year-term with 100% of the vote. But I mean who knew Solicitor was even important? Not me! We live and learn, right?

Okay. Well as you might imagine, that took the wind out of the commission’s sails to pass a parallel ordinance, at least for now. On the plus side, Solicitor Chisholm was open to expanding pre-trial diversion for all misdemenor cannabis arrests, as well as shoplifting, so that’s progress! It will keep some people out of jail, so I don’t want to pretend that there’s nothing but bad news here. But they’d still have to complete community service, be monitored by a probation officer, and pay a significant fine. So that’s far from ideal.

Now, Let’s check in on the bail reform efforts.

First, I should say that I think the main problem with this work session was the judges and other officials from the court system controlling the flow of the meeting and doing most of the talking. Commissioners didn’t talk much to each other about changes they wanted to make to the system. Mostly they had to sit and listen as court officials told them about things that were already underway. So what are some of those things?

Courts Official: “So as we look into the next steps on our criminal justice system, one of the things we can look at, piggy-backing on where some of the state-based reforms left off, is to revise our current bond schedule with increasing the number of offenses that might be eligible for an OR release that’s called on “own-recognizance”, basically somebody being released on their own good faith to show back up for court and to deal with their issue. We can increase the use of citations in lieu of arrest, again, for those 6 or 5 misdemeanor offenses that now can be issued by citation.”

Commissioner Edwards: “Judge, what sort of conditions could be placed on bond to divert people into this service regime that we’re building in this community?”

Judge Ryan Hope: “Judges can set whatever conditions we want, just about! And it’s the follow-through, how do we make sure it’s actually happening? That’s where we have the holes. Can we get a more consistent local re-entry process, where we either have releases, or we have a case-manager that can provide that information to the court, and we can really check up on that. From arraignment to appearance in court, in my court, it’s usually 30 to 45 days, that’s a big time period where a lot of bad things can happen. We can set the conditions but our ability to effectively monitor them is limited.”

Commissioner Edwards: “So is there any office or entity that could act as a probation office almost, where people would check in and show that they are complying?”

Judge Ryan Hope: “Probation performs that duty a little bit right now, as was mentioned earlier, with at least electronic monitoring, and there have been some other cases where a judge has decided, this isn’t exactly an “ankle-monitor I-need-to-know-you’re-in-your-house,” but there are some things in your life that I think need attention, and so they’ll assign them to the intensive supervision unit. But, they don’t have the resources to do that on 50 cases, or 100 cases, for just the non-electronic monitoring? Am I accurate?”

(voice from back of room) “It would be a stretch.”

Judge Ryan Hope: “So we do utilize that, but you really have to figure out, is this the one case I need to do it on, because I might not be able to do it for a week or two. It’s something that would need some resources to beef that up.”

It sounds like they will be expanding use of “own recognizance” or OR bonds, which is bail reform to an extent. It means that the accused are released on their own recognizance and they don’t have to pay cash bail. But the courts need to make sure that those accused are following whatever conditions the judge set for their release, and that they’ll show back up for their court date without money being on the line

The courts officials think that ankle monitors, probation officers, and assigning case workers to check in on the accused and to get them to court will allow judges to use “own recognizance” bonds more. They’ll also roll out a system for sending automated phone calls, emails and text messages to improve people’s chances of showing up for trial.

While I feel that these reforms are positive, it’s not really fair to ask people to pay for their own monitoring, before they’ve even been convicted of a crime. And even with these reforms, some cash bail will still be required in local courts. The commission can pass an ordinance to end cash bail entirely for violating ACC code at least. And it may be better to write this into law, so we can be sure it will happen.

Commissioner Denson is again leading the way here, asking for the end of cash bail to be voted on by the commission. It appears that Mayor Girtz will allow the vote, which is great! It couldn’t hurt, though, if you’d like to tell him your thoughts on this issue. I’ll keep you informed as this progresses.

One last comment about criminal justice reform, I was expecting Mariah Parker’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee idea to be discussed at this work session, but unfortunately it seems to have slipped through the cracks. The Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement will attend the next Mayor and Commission voting meeting, which is on April 2nd at 6pm, and they’ll be asking for a Citizen’s Advisory Board, which is very similar, I believe, to what Commissioner Parker had in mind. You might want to join them! Our progressive commission wants to do the right thing, but this is one of those times when they could use a push.

That’s about all I’ve got, but remember, if we really want to see progress on criminal justice reform, we need everyone involved. Contact your commissioner! Even better, show up at the April 2nd, voting session at City Hall. The work session I covered in this video was really disappointing. These are tough issues, and if there’s going to be any progress, it’ll be because the people demanded it. Keep speaking out.

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