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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
George Chidi

Georgia senate passes bill curtailing charitable bail funds for protest groups

Brick column holding gray sign that says 'Fulton County Jail' and address, beyond which are a black car and two sheriff's deputies.
Fulton county jail on 22 August 2023. Photograph: Erik S Lesser/EPA

The Georgia state senate passed legislation on Thursday mostly outlawing bail funds for protest groups, and added dozens of offenses to the list of charges requiring cash bail to secure release.

The passage of SB63 by a 30-17 vote in the Republican-dominated state senate arrives as three activists operating the Atlanta Solidarity Fund face state-level racketeering and charity fraud charges in connection with the prosecution of dozens of protesters against “Cop City”, an Atlanta project to build a police-training facility.

The bill would require any individual or group raising money as a charitable bail fund and soliciting donations for the release of accused persons to register and meet the requirements of a bail bond company. Under Georgia law, a county sheriff has absolute discretion over who can register as a bondsman, giving local law enforcement an effective veto over the bail component of political protests, said state senator Josh McLaurin, an Atlanta-area Democrat.

“The program that [US senator Raphael] Warnock’s church runs, a Mother’s Day bailout they do every year, will now be illegal under this bill, because charitable organizations will no longer be allowed to bail out more than three people a year,” McLaurin said.

Warnock, along with US senator Jon Ossoff and Representative Nikema Williams, all Democrats, released a statement on Thursday morning urging the US Department of Justice to speak about the state of its investigation into the Fulton county jail, which has endured inmate deaths at unprecedented levels over the last two years. The death of Lashawn Thompson, who was found dead in 2022 covered in insects in a filthy cell, drew national attention. Fifteen people died in Fulton county custody in 2022 and 10 last year. The letter said another inmate died in January.

“In light of these tragic and alarming events, we urge the DOJ to prioritize its investigation into the Fulton County Jail and devote any resources necessary to protect the rights of individuals in confinement,” the three Georgia federal lawmakers said in the letter. They also asked for a briefing about the investigation both in Atlanta and elsewhere.

Both activists and the Fulton county sheriff’s office have said that jail overcrowding has contributed to deaths in custody. But the bill passed by the Georgia senate today may exacerbate overcrowding by decreasing the discretion of local judges to release prisoners without cash bail.

“This bill basically says that if you are arrested and you’re poor, you’re going stay in jail,” McLaurin said.

The bill removes the discretion of a judge to allow a prisoner to be released on their own recognizance ahead of trial on the listed charges. Some amount, even if it is nominal, must be paid as a bond to secure release.

Many of the charges that would now require cash bail under the proposed law range from violent to non-violent crimes and reflect headline-grabbing, high-profile targets of law enforcement in Georgia over the last year: crimes associated with drag racing, shoplifting, obstruction of a law enforcement officer as a second offense, fleeing a police officer, rioting, racketeering and domestic terrorism, among others.

Georgia senate and house legislators each passed versions of the bill last year, but could not reconcile differences in the legislation before Thursday. This reconciled version of SB63 heads to the Georgia house for a vote and then to Governor Brian Kemp’s desk if adopted.

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