Even Small Jail Bonds Put a Price Tag on Freedom

Nancy Gallagher spent 13 days in jail because she couldn’t raise her $33 bail.

Nancy Gallagher spent 13 days in the Clarke County jail because she couldn’t post a $33 bond. She was charged with two misdemeanor crimes. It is likely she’d have remained locked up for another 13 days had not the Athens Area Courtwatch Project intervened on her behalf.  

On June 13, Gallagher, 54, was arrested and jailed, charged with battery and interfering with a 911 call. The next morning, she appeared remotely in front of Magistrate Judge Benjamin Makin at what is called a “first appearance bond hearing.”  

During the hearing—which lasted all of 10 minutes—Gallagher told Makin she was homeless and had no money. While the judge may have wanted Gallagher to leave jail without having to post a cash bond on the two misdemeanor charges, he was no longer allowed to do so. In early May, Gov. Brian Kemp signed legislation that prohibits Georgia judges from granting no-cash bonds when the charge is battery and family violence-related.  

Recognizing Gallagher’s inability to post a money bond of any significance, Makin set bail at $10 on each charge. When the sheriff’s $13 fee was added, the amount Gallagher needed to gain her pretrial liberty totaled $33. “It’s the lowest I can go,” the judge told her.

“Judge, I can’t make a $1 bond,” Gallagher sobbed from the jailhouse. Sure enough, she couldn’t.

On June 25, with Gallagher still in jail 13 days after she was arrested, the Athens Area Courtwatch Project posted the $33 to spring her from captivity. During the nearly two weeks she was in jail, Gallagher saw no lawyer. No one advocated to get her back in front of a judge to have her bond or misdemeanor charges reconsidered. At her first appearance hearing on June 13, she was told her arraignment in State Court would not happen until July 8. Had not the AACP gotten involved, it is likely she would have remained in jail until the arraignment, 25 days after her arrest.

“I never saw an attorney, but I did see somebody who told me to go to Advantage [Behavioral Health Systems] whenever I got out,” she told me on the day of her release.

If Gallagher were a person of means—even bare-minimum means—she would have spent no more than one night in jail before buying her way out the next day. But the $33 bond might as well have been $3,300. Gallagher is poor. She is homeless. She is mentally impaired. She has no family support. She is vulnerable. And, as such, she is apparently unimportant enough that we can allow our criminal legal system to throw her—and others like her—to the proverbial curb.

The cruelty of our cash bail system deprived Gallagher of her pretrial liberty. 

Each year many hundreds of Athens-Clarke County residents are arrested and jailed. Once locked up, having money often becomes their ticket to pretrial freedom. For those who lack financial resources—like Nancy Gallagher—the cash bail process transforms the pretrial legal process into punishment.  

With wealth-based detention, for-profit bail bond companies are able to make lots of money off the backs of the poor and people of color. These companies lobby heavily to retain and expand Georgia’s cash bail apparatus. It was the Georgia bail bond lobby that pushed hard for the law that essentially kept Gallagher in jail for thirteen days. State Sen. Bill Cowsert (R-Athens) co-authored the bill that Kemp signed into law in May. Both Cowsert and Kemp received hefty contributions from the bail bond lobby in the last several years.

On Jan. 23, I met Nancy Gallagher at the jail shortly after I’d posted $33 to gain her release.  Her cash bail came from a community bail fund sponsored by Oconee Street United Methodist Church. In the two hours following her release, Gallagher and I visited the Athens Homeless Day Shelter to establish a mailing address to receive court documents. We checked in with the Salvation Army shelter. We accessed the services offered at the Sparrow’s Nest. She now has an ID, some pocket change, clean clothes, new shoes and, as she told me when we walked out of the jail, “some fresh air and sunshine.”  

Gallagher was arraigned in State Court last week, where she entered a not guilty plea on the two pending misdemeanor charges. In the several weeks since she got out of jail, she has mostly slept outside, unable to access a bed in the area shelters. She’s essentially penniless and spends the daytime hours foraging for coffee, food and a smoke. When I saw her last week walking along Prince Avenue, she assured me she was “OK.” Then she added, “But people are so mean. So mean.”