Local

Bibb County’s bail issue: Is it too low or too high?

It is far easier to engage in demagoguery or call people names who hold a different opinion on community issues than engage in intellectually honest debate. Perhaps that explains not only why the eligibility of even petty offenders for bond has recently attracted so much attention but also why good judges are being unfairly maligned for doing their jobs in accordance with state and federal law. Most of the judges I know only want to do their jobs and avoid at all costs getting thrust into the vortex of a media manufactured controversy that has nothing to do with good faith efforts to solve a complex and expensive problem — jail overcrowding.

When that happens through no fault of their own, all they can do is take it because the constraints of judicial ethics prevent them from defending themselves. As a member of the bar and chair of the Risk Management and Public Safety Committee of the Bibb County Board of Commissioners, I offer the following comments in fulfillment of what I believe is an obligation to speak up in their defense and provide information that will help the public place the issue in legal, political and fiscal contexts.

The courts

To begin with, Bibb County has had the good fortune of having unusually good judges in all of our courts for a long time. They try to be sensitive to the needs of victims and criminal defendants. Although I no longer practice criminal law, during the time I tried criminal cases, I always felt my clients got a fair shake even when I disagreed with a particular ruling. To this day, one of my favorite judges was the late Judge C. Cloud Morgan who was widely perceived to be “tough” because he was always fair.

I have no doubt that the judges who set bonds and mete out justice do it with nothing more than the requirements of the law in mind. I have never seen a local judge who was not concerned with fairness to criminal defendants and the need to protect the public. Demands that they do something else is tantamount to asking conscientious judges to disregard their oaths of office, surrender their independence, politicize the judicial process or become mindless ideologues. The judges I know have not and will not stoop to that level.

Instead of invective, they ought to be thanked for working with other county officials to try to solve problems in the criminal justice system arena within the financial constraints in which we are forced to operate. Whether we agree or disagree with a particular decision, judges in our system are entitled to respect.

The law

From some of the comments that have been made about bonds, it is apparent that there is a gross misunderstanding of the purpose of bonds in criminal proceedings and basic civics, which is being shamelessly exploited for crass political purposes. The only purpose of bond is to insure that the accused will show up in court to answer the charge. The last time I checked, the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution still provided that “excessive bail shall not be required.”

There is a similar provision in the Georgia Constitution. The law in Georgia parallels federal standards. In addition, there is a safeguard in Georgia, which provides that the bond in 12 of the most serious offenses can only be set by a Superior Court judge in accordance with statutory criteria. It is a rare case in which bond is not set by either a magistrate or Superior Court judge. Further, lots of cases are not prosecuted for want of evidence.

Innocent until proven guilty

Fortunately, there is still a presumption of innocence in our system of justice. Just because someone is accused does not mean they are guilty. Many people in jail have not been convicted of anything. If locking people up and “throwing away the key” was the answer to the problem of crime, we should be the safest nation on Earth.

We, after all, lead the world in the number of our citizens who are behind bars and on some form of supervised release. All our approach to criminal justice has accomplished is to give democracy a black eye and lead state governments to the brink of bankruptcy.

Regardless of the sentence that is imposed, prisoners eventually return to their communities for better or worse — mostly worse. Until we do a better job of educating our children, that pattern will continue. Locally, we spend about $20,000 a year to lock up a person but only about $6,500 to educate a child. Go figure.

California

The “poster child” for prison overcrowding in this country is California. For all the reasons it is broke and in crisis, we are headed in that direction in Georgia. California is under court order to reduce the number of people in its prisons — and is in the process of releasing serious offenders to comply.

The state of Georgia is having financial problems in no small part because of past “get tough” political pandering that masqueraded as concern for public safety.

There is inadequate funding for the courts, legally mandated indigent defense, and enough prison beds to accommodate the results of misguided state policy. Instead of building more prisons, the state is closing prisons and shifting its responsibility for state prisoners onto the backs of local taxpayers by refusing to take custody of them within a reasonable time after they are convicted and sentenced.

If the state did not use this dubious strategy its prisons would probably be in the same sorry state as California’s. Further, the state plays games with counties by making them jump through unnecessary administrative hoops to receive the paltry sum it pays us to house its prisoners. The rate the state pays is only $22 per day when it actually costs us $55 per day to keep them.Health issues

What the state is doing to counties with prisoners is compounded by what it is doing in mental health. According to Bibb County Sheriff Jerry Modena, we have 200 people in our jail, who in the past were in the custody of the state hospital in Milledgeville with all the attendant costs for medical care and medicine.

The decisions that are made on bond has the potential to break Bibb County if we listen to people who do not know what they are talking about. We cannot afford to build enough jail space to house all the people we would need to lock up if we tried to implement an unconstitutional bond policy. Considering the low graduation rate in this community and what it portends for public safety, we would need to build a jail many times larger than its current capacity of 966 in order to do what has been an abysmal failure in state governments across this country.

The cost

It costs us $55 per day to house the people we lock up. That includes better health care than many would have at home. We cannot afford to do what we are doing for our current jail population, to say nothing of the increase that we will get if we deny people the bond the law allows.

We have been under a court order because of overcrowding in our jail. It cost this community a lot of money to fix the problems on a short-term basis just three years ago. The way we are going, another jail expansion will be necessary sooner or later — unless we change course and try to find cost-effective alternatives for dealing with the harmless miscreants who we are “mad at” and reserve expensive jail cells for those “we are afraid of.” We have to trust judges to make that distinction and act accordingly. I have no doubt that our district attorney will see that those who senselessly slaughter innocent people will get their just desserts.

Containing costs

We are trying to contain the cost of government in Bibb County without raising property taxes and putting public safety at risk. I believe that can be done. I do not intend to vote to raise taxes. But if we listen to people who do not have a clue about this issue and the jail gets to the point it was when we got sued and a federal court orders us to remedy it, neither I nor my fellow commissioners will have any choice but to comply. If that happens, we will have only our failure to lead to blame — not judges who are sworn to uphold the law. That could cost lord only knows how much money. This is a situation that we sometimes face in life and politics when we just have to do what is right and in the best interest of the community and when we are unfairly reproached for it, “consider the source.”

Lonzy Edwards is a Bibb County commissioner.

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