Under pressure: will the commission end cash bail in Athens?

The mayor and commission feels the pressure on criminal justice reform as the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement shows up and speaks out.

Watch the full mayor and commission voting session here, courtesy of the ACC Public Information Office.


So this is exciting..! Since my last video, the public has been piling pressure on the mayor and commission for criminal justice reform across multiple fronts. The Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement came out in force to the April 2nd voting session, and I’ve got their comments, coming up. But there’s more, the 2020 SPLOST Citizen’s Advisory Committee is in a tug of war right now with the commission over the proposed new judicial center.

For background on the 2020 SPLOST and the $81 million dollar judicial center idea, check out that link that just popped up. Assuming everyone’s caught up, let’s listen to two members of the advisory committee describe why they did not recommend the judicial center for funding.

Opposition to this project went very deep and touched on systemic issues in our justice system.

As a member of the black community here, I can tell you that, as a youth, we’ve seen the system prey on our people day in and day out. So what we’re asking is that, we see a clear change from leadership, which is you guys, mayor and commission.

Before the commission could debate the judicial center at the April 2nd voting session, they heard a barrage of comments from the public about criminal justice reform.

I’m here in support of Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement’s request for a community police accountability board. People from communities who are most impacted from police and incarceration should have more of a say on what policing and incarceration looks like. It would help to balance the power to ensure fair policing because the voices of these victims and their families are not being heard. Community police accountability board must have subpoena power, disciplinary authority and power to evaluate the patterns, practices and procedures and to make recommendations to the police department.

Community Police Accountability Boards are present in many places across the country, including in Fairfax, Virginia where ACCPD Police Chief Spruill is from, so he’s very familiar with how they work. That fact, together with his focus on community policing and the community pressure, makes it seem likely to me that we’ll see one of these boards created in Athens soon.

AADM also spoke at length on the need for ending cash bail. First, you could out why cash bail is a problem here.

I urge you to pass a local ordinance that would reduce the number of people arrested and second would completely eliminate cash bail for any arrests or violations of the Athens-Clarke County code. Research shows people who spend even a short period of time in jail, as opposed to being released pre-trial, are more likely to commit future crime. Washington, DC moved away from the cash bail system nearly three decades ago, yet the overwhelming majority of defendants have shown up for their appointed court dates. Will you pledge tonight to put on the agenda an ordinance that will abolish cash bail as broadly as is possible?

We’ll find out how the commission responded, but let’s put a pin in that for now and move on with the regularly scheduled meeting. So, the commission sets their Goals and Objectives every year, which is the primary document that informs budget discussions, which are currently ongoing. This year’s Goals and Objectives include a number of ambitious components. For example, there’s a commitment to the 100% Athens plan for 100% renewable energy by 2035, moving towards fare-free transit, a municipal wireless network for broadband across Athens, and a number of criminal justice reforms showing a focus on rehabilitation instead of incarceration.

In response to the community’s concerns and comments, Commissioner Parker inserted ‘ending cash bail’ into the commission’s Goals and Objectives.

I would like to add, in the second sentence, eliminating cash bail, phasing out the inmate labor for free program, etc. I would like to, in short, include that particular community concern brought to the podium tonight.

Her motion was briefly in danger of being delayed by Commissioner NeSmith, who wanted to re-word the part about fare-free transit, but in the end it was passed unanimously.

Then came the discussion and vote on the proposed new judicial center and other SPLOST projects.

I want to know if we could separate the judicial system from the housing piece, so I would like to make a motion to divide the question.

The projects involving affordable housing, support for Bogart and Winterville and debt service weren’t controversial and passed easily. The same can’t be said about the proposed new judicial center.

I’m not supporting the judicial center tonight, because I think these citizens gave their time and their energy, and when they tried to get information to help them make their decision, they did not get what they needed. I’ve talked to some of the CAC folk, and presenters stated that the issues of Athens-Clarke County disproportionately incarcerating African-Americans… that to me, is not progressive. As a strong proponent of criminal justice reform, coming to think about the ways interacting within that space when you come in for trial… feeling safe, feeling like you have dignity by having space to meet with your attorney privately. If you’re an inmate, having space to wait without being out in public where people see you shackled or in your jumpsuit. Things like that are really important. And so, I’ve kind of come around to the idea of figuring out someplace to put this judicial center, perhaps in a revised form. We have outgrown our courthouse. We need more room to create a place where the dignity of all humans, no matter the reason why they’re in the courthouse, is respected. Our courthouse was built when we had one superior court judge and now we have four. The only problem I have is that I cannot support it at this price. When it comes to the judicial center, I think we need to get out on the front-end with these criminal justice reforms and assure the public that we are serious about changing this system. Well before this ends up on a ballot, we need to make those commitments and make it clear that we are committed to them. We can do an awesome building, which is definitely, definitely needed, but if we have these attitudes, it doesn’t matter what kind of building we have.

This same commission had actually overturned the decision to designate funds for the judicial center in January, and had pressed the manager for other options.

Are the saying that you can or you cannot give us another plan or idea, something creative? Let me huddle with staff and with the courts folks as well, and we’ll take another hard look at what we’ve got so far, and see if there’s any alternatives.

Did he ever deliver those other options?

Yes. According to Commissioner Denson, there are a number of options currently being discussed. Commissioner Wright and Edwards crafted their motion to be very broad, including a lot of room for these different options, such as renovating an existing structure instead of building new, which would be significantly less expensive. Whatever is eventually decided upon, commissioners are convinced that something will have to happen with our courthouse within SPLOST’s 9-10 year time frame. So, they chose to take action and to go ahead and designate the new judicial center as part of SPLOST 2020. This proposal passed 8-2, with Commissioners Davenport and Thornton voting no.

Now, it goes back to the advisory committee and the public. There is an open house meeting for public input on Wednesday, April 10 at 5:30pm at the Dougherty Street Government building (120 W Dougherty Street).

As we’ve seen, the community’s voice is very powerful when we speak out. Hopefully, before the SPLOST is finalized and voted on, we’ll see real and substantial commitments from the mayor and commission to finally reform our criminal justice system. Then we can vote with trust that the new judicial center will truly be a center for justice and restoration. I know we’ll all be watching carefully to see what happens over the next few months.

Thanks for watching, and if you’re not subscribed to my channel, definitely go ahead and hit that red button so you’ll be informed of my future videos. Bye for now.

I’ve sat here for more than a few times, and the last time, $250,000 was given to a police officer who hit a man with his car. And so, what would have happened if we had a community police accountability board who could have said, you know what? “We still feel uncomfortable with this person being in our police department.”

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