The city of Atlanta is trusting potential shoplifters, pot users and illegal drivers to return to court, requiring nothing but their signature to get out of jail.
(excerpt from The Reveal March 26 2019)
ATLANTA — Donna Smitherman sits in clear view of the Atlanta Detention Center as she talks about her arrests.
“I don’t want back in there, ever,” she said, with a chuckle.
Smitherman said she’s always had a job and roof over her head, until last year. She moved to Atlanta with her husband to take a job rehabbing an apartment complex. Part of their pay included housing in one of the units. But she said one day, the owner showed up with news -- he’d decided to sell the building instead.
With no family support system or savings to fall back on, they ended up on the streets.
“We ended up setting up a tent up over by the zoo. We had all of our stuff in a duffle bag and we woke up one night with two men with sticks hitting us and they took our duffle bag," Donna said.But
The Reveal found 55 percent of the FTAs studied - never became active warrants because they were not signed by the judges. The court couldn’t issue warrants in 22 other cases due to errors in the information provided or entered into the jail and court systems.
Inside the duffle bag was the little money they had left, their IDs, cell phone and clothes. That’s when Donna said she started begging by the freeway. Her sign said, “homeless and hungry, please help.”
It was that sign that led to her arrest, three times. Twice she was able to get out immediately on a signature bond, thanks to the city’s new bail policy. But each time, Donna ended up as a failure to appear (FTA).
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“Because honestly living out there, you don’t keep up with the time,” explained Smitherman. She said she had more immediate concerns, like what to eat and finding a safe place to sleep.
Still, Tiffany Roberts with the Southern Center for Human Rights said Smitherman is just the kind of person bail reform is supposed to help. It was this group that led the campaign for change.
“I think it was a courageous first step,” Roberts said.
The idea is to prevent people who can’t afford to pay bond, from having to wait days to see a judge before they’re released. But now it appears it’s the court that’s waiting on them.
11Alive Investigators spent a morning in Judge Christopher Ward’s courtroom, where five days a week he hears nothing but FTA cases. According to the Atlanta Municipal Court, the number of people failing to appear has increased 40 percent in the past year.