Cash Bail Keeps People Locked Up Just Because They’re Poor

RDNE Stock Project

“Poverty is the loss of liberty,” Matthew Desmond tells us in his new and indispensable book, Poverty, by America. “Today, scores languish in jail, not because they’ve been convicted of a crime, but because they… can’t make bail.”  

Volunteers with the Athens Area Courtwatch Project are everyday witnesses to how our criminal legal system can work to crush people—especially the poor and marginalized—in our community. We are particularly made aware of how the sinister cash bail system essentially denies poor persons their fundamental right to the presumption of innocence by denying them their pretrial liberty. 

Over the past four years, we who courtwatch have observed hundreds of first-appearance bond hearings in Athens-Clarke County Magistrate Court. The vast majority of defendants who appear for bond hearings are Black or brown, un- or under-employed, suffer from a physical or mental disability, are precariously housed if not homeless, haven’t completed high school, and have little to no visible family support.  Nearly all of these women and men appear at their bond hearings lawyerless, unable to afford an attorney to assist them during this first crucial phase of their criminal case. Legal help will come later in the form of a public defender. 

Worse yet, the Georgia legislature has, in its past two sessions, found ways to restrict magistrate judges from releasing pretrial defendants from jail without having to put up a cash bond. A new law went into effect July 1 that requires judges to set a monetary bond for anyone who has a “failure to appear” in their criminal history over the last five years. This law applies to even those charged with misdemeanor offenses.

Fortunately, ACC’s three magistrate judges are setting cash bonds as low as possible for those misdemeanor defendants who, because of the new mandatory bail requirements, can no longer be released on their own recognizance. Still, many of these defendants are not able to post cash bonds of any amount. The single feature shared by almost every defendant in pretrial detention is that they are poor. 

Since July 1, thanks to our community bail fund—sponsored by Oconee Street United Methodist Church—we’ve posted small bonds for 17 people who were unable to purchase their pretrial liberty. One of these prisoners had been unable to post a $85 bond; another, $50. Nine could not post bonds in the amount of $10, and one needed $5 to gain release from jail. Five people had no one to post $1. All were charged with misdemeanor offenses. Collectively, these 17 women and men spent 274 days in the Clarke County jail before our bail fund set them free.

Here are just two recent examples of our community bail fund at work:

On Aug. 12, I posted bond for 67-year-old Charles Carter. He’d been locked up for 31 days, charged with misdemeanor criminal trespassing. His $10 bond totaled $33 after court costs and the sheriff’s fee were assessed. 

On July 12, Carter went into the Russell Library building on the University of Georgia campus looking for a water fountain. He walked behind the front desk in the library’s lobby, then left the building. A library employee called the campus police, telling the dispatcher that Carter was “cussing to himself” and “acting high.” 

The UGA cop who responded found Carter walking near Broad Street in downtown Athens. “I asked Carter if he was alright,” the officer wrote in his two-page report.  “[Carter] replied with, ‘Yes, I was just talking to Christ.’  He then began to speak on several topics with no clear train of thought, once mentioning that he was 19 years old, and another with him stating he was ‘a slaughtered orphan.'” 

Dispatch informed the officer that Carter had been previously barred from all of UGA’s campus. “I placed Carter under arrest in double-locked handcuffs behind his back,” the report stated. The cop transported the disoriented Carter to the jailhouse, where he stayed for a month until we posted his $10 bond.

Earlier this summer, I received a text from a public defender telling me that his client Ronald Brown, 67, needed just $10 to gain his pretrial release. Brown had been locked up for 10 days in Athens after he’d been arrested in Atlanta on an ACC bench warrant.

On Mar. 9, Brown had been busted in Athens, charged with misdemeanor theft of mislaid property. At his first appearance bond hearing the next morning, Brown was released without having to post a money bond. He returned to his home in Atlanta, and missed his scheduled June 22 arraignment. A bench warrant for his arrest was issued on June 22, and almost a month later, on July 20, Brown was arrested at a downtown Atlanta homeless shelter and brought back to Athens. 

On July 28, an attorney persuaded the State Court judge to lift the bench warrant and set Brown’s bond at a reasonable $10. I drove out to the jail the next afternoon and handed a jailer $33 ($10 bond; $3 court fees; $20 sheriff’s fee). An hour later, I was walking alongside Brown to my car. 

Brown told me he was about to go into rehab when he was arrested, thanks to help from Central Outreach and Advocacy Center, a reputable nonprofit that for many years has provided services to homeless Atlantans on the grounds of Central Presbyterian Church, across the street from the Georgia capitol. “I’m hoping to find a way back to Atlanta to see if I can still get into rehab,” Mr. B. said to me as he slowly exited my car in the Waffle House parking lot holding a $20 bill I’d given him. “But right now, I’m gonna get a burger.”

For more information about the OSUMC Community Bail Fund, email