The Devil is back in Georgia

A new law threatens charitable bail funds—and fundamental civil rights.

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The bail window at the Brooklyn courthouse

Friday afternoon I sat on a bench in the main lobby of the downtown Brooklyn courthouse waiting to post bail.

I was there as a volunteer with a local nonprofit that provides interest-free loans to people who can’t afford it. It was nearly two hours after I’d arrived at the bail window to provide the person’s case number, which set the wheels in motion for their release. A corrections officer usually tells you to come back in an hour, but it’s never an accurate estimate. Typically, it’s closer to two—or more. 

The process of posting bail, at least in New York, is largely done by fax. It’s archaic and a waste of time for everyone involved, consistent with our broken criminal justice system. And on Tuesday, the Georgia House of Representatives passed a restrictive new bill that directly impacts the act of posting bail, and adds 30 news offenses to the list of those that require cash bail. And it’s in large part to punish political protesters.

The Appeal describes it like this:

The bill effectively eliminates charitable bail funds. It states that no “individual, corporation, organization, charity, nonprofit corporation, or group” may post more than three cash bonds per year. A person who violates the ban would be charged with a misdemeanor.

The new bill requires charitable bail funds to submit to the same regulations as bail-bond companies—including undergoing background checks, paying fees, and having an application approved by a local sheriff’s department.

For perspective, Friday was the third time I posted bail this calendar year. New York limits an individual to posting bail a maximum of two times in a 30 day period, and I’d already posted twice in early January. That’s just to say that putting parameters on bail, while cruel and nonsensical, is not unique to Georgia. And yet I’m still grateful, because having the ability to post 24 times in a year is a helluva lot more than three. Pre-trial detention often leads to death, both in New York and Georgia, and all over the country.

And to put it in even sharper perspective, Georgia state senator Josh McLaurin told the Guardian last week: “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.” The program is called the Black Mama’s Bail Out.

The legislation, which already passed the state senate, will go to Governor Brian Kemp’s desk, where it will in all likelihood be signed. 

Charitable bail funds vary, but the basic premise is that people donate to a nonprofit, which in turn uses the money to pay cash bail for people who cannot afford it themselves. Sometimes it’s for as little as one dollar. The idea of bail has been politicized, but when you boil it down, it’s a simple financial transaction: If you can afford to pay, you’re free; If you can’t, you’re trapped. Bail funds work to take that inequity out of the equation, so naturally many people in law enforcement and government hate it. 

And because the Republicans are the party of law and order (despite all evidence to the contrary) they launched this crusade against bail funds to punish political opponents. 

Protests against the building of the $90 million Atlanta Public Safety Training Center have been ongoing since 2022, with protesters dubbing the facility “Cop City.” Aside from objections on social justice grounds, the cause has been especially resonant with environmental activists who have continually objected to the clearing of 85 acres of Atlanta’s South River Forest to make way for the facility. And the confrontation between law enforcement and protesters has even turned deadly: In January 2022, protester Manuel ‘Toruguita’ Paez Terán was shot and killed by a state trooper. It was the first time in the history of the United States that an environmental activist was killed by law enforcement. 

What does this have to do with charitable bail funds? Well, bail funds have been integral in bailing out the protesters arrested as part of the Copy City protests, with the Atlanta Solidarity Fund leading the charge. The state was so incensed by the nonprofits’ efforts to help people protesting the police that in May 2023, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation arrested three of the funds’ organizers

And now with this new legislation passed in both houses of the state assembly, Georgia law enforcement and their allies in government are one signature away from codifying this type of punishment into law.

I couldn’t tell you how I first became involved with posting bail, but somehow I ended up on a listserv that sends out an email anytime a community member needs someone to show up in person to free them. It’s an incredibly simple act—passive even—and I never come face to face with the person. But it often feels like one of the only tangible things I can do within this profoundly broken system. Helping within a broken system is still helping nonetheless. 

Depriving people access to their freedom is a fundamental violation of civil rights. Depriving Americans the right to free people from jail if they have the appropriate funds is a violation of civil rights. Above all, it’s another nail in the coffin of our shared humanity.

I’d heard rumblings about what’s happening in Georgia months ago and began to feel slight trepidation each time I went down to the court house. While there are no similar plans in New York, the fact that another state in this country was calling this simple and humane act illegal was chilling.

But each time I post bail, I remind myself that, no, they’re the ones who are wrong. Because of this simple act, this person is able to be home with their family, or their friends, or doing their job, or simply alone watching their favorite show on Netflix like the rest of us.

Everyone has the right to get free. And though it so often is, that right should not be governed by the money in your pocket.

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