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UPDATE: Athens Residents Seek to Block New Cash Bail Law

Credit: Athens-Clarke County Unified Government

Update: A federal judge agreed to halt SB 63 from taking effect July 1. Judge Victoria Marie Calvert issued a two-week injunction on Friday, June 28.

“We are encouraged by the judge’s ruling and its recognition that this law is unnecessary, harmful, and likely unconstitutional. We are relieved for our Plaintiffs and the many people across the state that they serve. It’s unconscionable that people doing charitable bail work would face criminal penalties simply because they are helping people who are languishing in jail because of their poverty and have no other means of relief,” ACLU of Georgia Legal Director Cory Isaacson said in a news release.

Original Story: Two Athens residents are involved in a federal lawsuit seeking to stop restrictions on posting charitable bail for indigent defendants accused of minor crimes.

John Cole Vodicka and Steve Williams volunteer for the Courtwatchers program at Oconee Street United Methodist Church. As Vodicka has written for Flagpole, people are routinely held in jail before trial for months because they can’t afford to pay a bond as low as $10 for a misdemeanor. 

Senate Bill 63, passed by the legislature and signed by Gov. Brian Kemp earlier this year, adds to the list of crimes that judges are required to set bail for, rather than release defendants on a signature bond. It also limits charitable groups and non-bail bondsmen from bailing out more than three individuals per year.

The ACLU of Georgia and the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown University filed the lawsuit on behalf of Vodicka, Williams and the Barred Business Foundation, an Atlanta nonprofit. 

“SB 63 is cruel and costly, forcing people to languish in jail because they can’t pay for their release, and prohibiting others from being able to help them become free,” ACLU of Georgia legal director Cory Isaacson said in a news release. “With this law, the State of Georgia makes it illegal for people to exercise their First Amendment rights to help those who are detained solely because they are poor. It is mean and it is unconstitutional, and our hope is that the courts will step in to stop the State from doing more harm.”

In addition, the law violates the plaintiffs’ constitutional right to express their religious beliefs through acts of generosity towards neighbors, said Joseph Mead, special litigation counsel for ICAP.

The ACLU and ICAP filed the lawsuit in Atlanta’s U.S. District Court on Thursday. The groups are seeking an injunction or temporary restraining order blocking SB 63 from taking effect on July 1.

The lawsuit names as defendants Kemp, Attorney General Chris Carr, Fulton County Solicitor General Keith E. Gammage and Athens-Clarke County Solicitor General Will Fleanor. The attorney general and county solicitors, who prosecute misdemeanors, both have the authority to enforce SB 63.

Courtwatchers is not the only local group that bails out individuals who can’t afford to buy their way out of jail. The Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement is also accepting donations for its bail fund with the goal of helping 50 incarcerated people regain their freedom before July 1.