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Sarah Geraghty Talks Bail Reform And Decriminalizing Poverty

By Emma Cueto | January 6, 2019, 8:02 PM EST

Sarah Geraghty's used to making an impact with the Southern Center for Human Rights, but rarely is it put so bluntly as when the Atlanta mayor called out her group's influence in orchestrating the city's recent bail reform measures.

Sarah Geraghty is the director of impact litigation at the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta.

The mayor's office revamped bail procedures after the center, where Geraghty is director of impact litigation, challenged the city's system, which had been causing people to languish in the city jails for months for offenses as minor as smoking in the park.

The City Council passed a measure eliminating cash bail for some low-level offenses in February, and Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who took over at the start of 2018, signed it hours later, quipping to local media outlets that the city had "avoided a lawsuit by the Southern Center for Human Rights."

Under Geraghty's leadership, the SCHR's impact litigation division focuses on leveling the harsher impacts that poorer defendants face when charged with an offense, including bail reform, and prison conditions, especially solitary confinement.

Geraghty first worked at the SCHR as an intern during law school, and returned as a staff member after working as a federal court clerk in Illinois and a public defender in New York. Originally from Illinois, she now calls Georgia home.

Here, Geraghty talks about how to lay the groundwork for reform and why we might be at a watershed moment for addressing fairness in the courts for lower-income Americans. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

How do you go about taking large macro problems and systemic issues, such as criminalization of poverty, and come up with specific actions to challenge those?

I feel very strongly that I want to be responsive to the actual and organic needs of people who are struggling in the criminal legal system.

It's important to me to listen to the calls that we get, the complaints that we get, to read the mail that we get to have a strong sense of what people are actually experiencing, rather than dreaming up issues that I would be interested in litigating in the privacy of my office.

You know you have a problem if you take a look at a jail docket and you see that someone has been in jail pretrial on a $500 bond for allegedly shoplifting a stick of deodorant — which is a real example. Or you know you have a problem if you see that there is a woman detained for weeks and her purge fee — meaning the amount she could pay to get out — is $277 for some back child support.

That document will tell you a lot.

It seems like the organization has had a big impact on bail reform in Atlanta this year.

We had a new mayor as of the first of [2018], and our organization and another group, Civil Rights Corps, sent letters [detailing] the kinds of things we were seeing in the Atlanta City Court and kinds of cases for which people were languishing in the city jails.

We were able to determine that in the city jail at the time — late 2017, early 2018 — every night, people would languish in jail because they were unable to pay small preset sums for offenses like urinating in public, smoking a cigarette in the park, driving without a license.

There was one man [Sam Ramsey] that we found in the jail. I still can't believe this is the case, but he was arrested for holding a sign that said 'homeless please help,' and he spent 72 days in jail awaiting trial on a bail of [$200] that he couldn't afford to pay, without ever seeing a lawyer or and without ever coming to court.

Those are the sorts of things we brought to the attention of the mayor.

Now that there is some momentum for bail reform, what are your next steps?

We are looking at whether we might be able to help facilitate and encourage bail reform in a couple other large jurisdictions in Georgia. I'm thinking in particular of Columbus, Macon, Valdosta.

Bail reform in Atlanta happened in a really collaborative way, and without three years of litigation and discovery disputes and motions to compel and the rigamarole of litigation, which can be incredibly time-consuming and frankly sometimes wasteful of resources.

So we are very much pursuing invitations that we've received from people who are part of county and city governments from around the state in taking that next step towards bail reform in their jurisdictions.

In addition to bail reform, what other issues are you working on right now?

One that my colleagues and I are working on pretty intensely right now is a prison conditions lawsuit having to do with solitary confinement, challenging conditions at Georgia's most isolated and restrictive solitary confinement unit, which is at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson, Georgia.

This is a facility where people are left on their own in isolation cells 23 to 24 hours a day. These are cells that are specifically designed to prevent people from interacting with other human beings.

We hired an expert witness, who toured the facility in October 2017, and he found that it was one of the most draconian facilities he had ever seen in his 40 years of professional experience and that the people he met there were some of the most traumatized people he had ever met in his professional experience.

In general, what seems to be the trend in the issues you work on? Where's the momentum right now?

Especially on the issue of criminalization of poverty, I think we are at a moment of reckoning.

We saw during the Obama administration the Department of Justice calling out this incredibly unfortunate culture in too many of our courts where the folks who are involved in those courts really run them for the purpose of generating revenue.

The good news is that we are seeing public discussion of that fact in a way that we have not [previously]. I think that people are, in big courts and little courts all across the South and all across the country, getting the message that you can't use courts as a money-making mechanism.

But we have a ways to go. And we cannot allow that mercenary culture to exist in our criminal legal system any longer.

You've been at this for a long time. How do you, on a personal level, keep from burning out?

It certainly does get to you — there's really no way around that. I think the reason that I've stayed here is because I am surrounded by a group of colleagues who are smart, compassionate, kind, collegial, and all of whom share a common vision for a better and fairer criminal legal system. And so that's the reason I'm here 15 years later.

--Editing by Brian Baresch.

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