The Georgia Senate Public Safety Committee Wednesday advanced a bill that would add bail requirements to a laundry list of criminal offenses in order to get released from jail.

This story also appeared in Georgia Recorder

In the coming days the full Senate chamber could take up the Republican-backed measure, criticized by criminal justice reform organizations and Democratic legislators for its potential to undermine the legal system, target the poor and increase the likelihood of re-arrest.

Senate Bill 63 cleared committee Wednesday on a 4-3 party line vote that comes a week after a public hearing was held on the measure that would mean that arrests for marijuana possession, shoplifting, trespassing or fighting are now prohibited from judges releasing a person with a signature promising they will appear in court.

Cataula Republican Sen. Randy Robertson, the sponsor of the bill, said the measure targets repeat offenders and violent criminals who often avoid accountability by not putting up bail. He cited data presented to the committee by Atlanta Police Chief Darin Schierbaum showing that 889 arrests of repeat offenders last year accounted for nearly 29,000 criminal charges and 33% of people with prior felony convictions had a firearm with them at the time of the latest arrest.

“What we’re trying to do with this legislation is continue to put these guardrails up that to ensure that we take the revolving doors off of our jails and the 159 counties throughout Georgia and ensure that these individuals who go out and commit these crimes, they do have an opportunity to post bond and be allowed to go out into the community and hopefully be productive citizens,” Robertson said.

The opponents say the measure would strike a blow to bail reform that allows people who can’t afford to pay a cash bail or put up property for collateral in order to stay out of jail while their case moves forward. The ACLU of Georgia referenced a study by the Legislature’s Council on Criminal Justice Reform that found that even having someone spend a couple of days locked in a detention center is 40% more likely to reoffend than someone released within a day.

Robertson, who worked 30 years in law enforcement before retiring from the Muscogee Sheriff’s Office in 2015, sponsored a similar bill last year that would’ve required cash bail or property to be put up for anyone arrested for a felony. House Bill 504 made it through the Senate before stalling in the House chamber.

Republicans Gov. Brian Kemp, Lt. Gov. Burt Jones and the Senate Majority Caucus have been pushing legislation this year that ratchets up the criminal penalties for street gang offenses and gives state law enforcement and more latitude to proactively pursue domestic terrorism cases.

Senate Bill 63 has been praised by Jones as an aggressive bail reform that aims to get violent criminals and repeat offenders off Georgia’s streets.

Stone Mountain Democratic Sen. Kim Jackson complains the plan groups together less dangerous offenses with more serious violent crimes.

“A person can be charged with domestic terrorism for literally breaking windows and so I’m struggling with understanding how you are equating domestic terrorism with murder or armed robbery,” she said at an earlier committee meeting.

Robertson said that he added misdemeanor criminal trespass, reckless driving, and obstruction of a law enforcement officer to the bail restricted list since those offenses are often linked to other charges. The judge is still free to set a bond amount as low as he or she likes in light of the circumstances, and a police officer has the option of following a local ordinance which might result in a citation for marijuana possession rather than locking the person up under state law, he added.

“But what it cannot be is the stroke of a pen leaving the citizens under the impression that the individual who is alleged to have violated the law had actually put up a surety that’s many times very large numbers, but actually all they did was sign a promissory note saying they would be in court,” Robertson said.

Forsyth County State Court Judge T. Russell McClelland III pointed out that that bail bond companies don’t typically trouble themselves any bond amounts that are below $1,000.

“We’re looking at people like Sen. Jackson talked about that are having difficulty with finances and trying to find that medium where we can get that person out of jail,” he said. “When people come to us with misdemeanors, we don’t want them taking up jail space unnecessarily.”

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