As a student at the University of Georgia working towards my master’s degree in social work, I was pleased to read about the elimination of bail for ordinance violations in Athens-Clarke County (City Dope, June 12). The decision made by the ACC Commission to issue citations, rather than arrest citizens, is the first step to reforming our broken prison system.
The prison system disproportionately affects racial and ethnic minorities at an alarming rate. According to the NAACP, racial and ethnic minorities, like African Americans and the Latinx community, represent approximately 56% of the prison population, even though they only make up 32% of the total U.S. population. If such populations were incarcerated at the same rate as their white counterparts, the total prison population would decrease by a staggering 40%. The implementation of citations instead of arrests for minor offenses like ordinance violations is a progressive step made by the ACC Commission to ameliorate the demographics of the local prison population.
Ordinance violations are offenses that are likely to be committed by even the most esteemed members of the community. Described as “quality-of-life issues,” an ordinance violation can be as simple as an overgrown yard. The irony of this situation is that when an individual is arrested for a “quality-of-life issue,” their quality of life diminishes significantly. An arrest record affects whether an individual can keep their job while incarcerated and significantly decreases their likelihood of being hired after serving their time. This type of bail reform promotes equity among disadvantaged populations and is beneficial to the vibrant community of Athens.
So what are the future implications for this type of progressive reform? Hopefully, it will make a positive change in current prison population, but past that, this is an opportunity for the local government to amend current legislation regarding nonviolent offenses. On any given day in the U.S., 451,000 people are incarcerated due to nonviolent drug offenses. This hot topic is already being discussed by the commission in terms of the local population, but there is still a huge need for more direct and focused attention given to this issue.
Athens is an progressive oasis in a largely conservative state. I believe that Athens can forge a path for a more just prison system in all capacities because they are starting with the small, yet important step of the elimination of arrests for ordinance violations.