Lawmakers OK bill intended to make ‘revolving door’ jail bonds transparent

    Critics complain Fulton County courts are too generous with signature bonds, creating a "revolving door" for repeat offenders. State lawmakers sent a bill to the governor's desk Friday intended to force judges to make more transparent bonding decisions. John McCosh/Georgia Recorder

    State lawmakers Friday sent legislation to the governor’s desk intended to force judges to make a clear call whether to force accused criminals to put down collateral to get out of jail or to simply release them trusting that they’ll show up in court.

    Supporters say it’s about government transparency and keeping Georgians safe, but opponents say it robs Georgia judges of their ability to impose restrictions while the person awaits their day in court and unfairly targets poor people.

    When someone is arrested now, a judge can release them on bond, meaning they put down money or property as collateral that ensures they will show up for their court date. Judges also can set a signature bond to allow the defendant to sign a document promising to come to court and without putting down collateral.

    Those signature bonds can lead to what critics call a “revolving door” for repeat offenders and Fulton County is often cited as Exhibit A to illustrate the problem.

    Senate Bill 402, sponsored by Cataula Republican Sen. Randy Robertson, would change the terms from “signature bond” to “unsecured judicial release.”

    Judges can still let suspects go without making them pay collateral, but calling it a release rather than a bond will more clearly describe the situation, said Harlem Republican Rep. Barry Fleming, who pushed for the bill in the House.

    “Rather than taking away their authority, we are simply shining light on a problem and letting it be aired out a little bit, and if they do that, they can own up to it,” he said.

    The problem Fleming wants to end is criminals simply walking out of jail on a signature bond and reoffending, he said.

    “Some judges are letting people go on signature bonds without giving it enough of a thought, and we’re creating a revolving door,” he said. “They get arrested on Tuesday for breaking into someone’s house, the judges let them out for nothing on Wednesday, and then they commit another crime on Thursday.”

    But the language change could create problems for the state’s busiest courts. When judges issue bonds, they can include restrictions, such as banning the defendant from contacting the alleged victim. That might not be possible under a release, according to the state Council of Municipal Court Judges.

    “An unsecured judicial release is not a bond, and therefore could not be revoked like a bond,” the council wrote in a June 25 letter to lawmakers. “The unforeseen consequences of using new language like this could be catastrophic.”

    Cash bonds do not improve public safety, and the bill could leave taxpayers footing the bill for more inmates awaiting trial, said Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers Mazie Lynn Causey

    “In addition to decreasing judicial discretion, with SB 402, the legislature is punishing the poor while lining the pockets of the bonding companies, and the resulting detention cost increases will be passed along to taxpayers,” she said.

    Most Georgia judges do not overuse signature bonds, Fleming said, but some – he singled out Fulton and Clarke counties – issue too many.

    “In the last year, a third of the people arrested who were given signature bonds in Fulton County did not show back up to court. And what that makes happen is the officers who need to be protecting the houses that are getting broken into now have to go out there and find folks who had no skin in the game and decided not to go back to court.”

    The Georgia House narrowly passed the bill Friday 99-68.

    Ross Williams
    Before joining the Georgia Recorder, Ross Williams covered local and state government for the Marietta Daily Journal.Williams' reporting took him from City Hall to homeless camps, from the offices of business executives to the living rooms of grieving parents. His work earned recognition from the Georgia Associated Press Media Editors and the Georgia Press Association, including beat reporting, business writing and non-deadline reporting. A native of Cobb County, Williams holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Atlanta's Oglethorpe University and a master’s in journalism from Northwestern University.