Democratic Georgia U.S. Senate candidate Raphael Warnock has long opposed cash bail, the system that requires people to put up money as essentially collateral to ensure they appear for court dates, even as the Democratic Party didn't put the policy in its platform until 2020.
Opposition to cash bail has become a mainstream position in the Democratic Party this year, as President-elect Joe Biden supported it during the campaign after it did not appear in the 2016 party platform. The 2020 Democratic Platform, in supporting an end to cash bail, says "[p]overty is not a crime, and it should not be treated as one." This reflects language Warnock used in support of a 2018 ordinance passed in Atlanta that allowed people arrested for minor crimes to get out of jail without paying cash bail.
"A letter went out to the council members from an attorney representing the bondsman association reminding them that this system is as old as the country, as if that supports the rightness of the situation," Warnock said to the Atlanta City Council as it was considering the bail reform ordinance. "Slavery is as old as this country, and it is as wrong as it is old. And so I stand to say that I support this new ordinance. We ought to end money bail. We ought to end wealth-based detention."
Warnock added: "I'm hearing a lot of arguments today that are the opposite of what our Constitution represents. In the United States of America, at least on paper, you are innocent until proven guilty... The ability to pay your bond may only mean that you have a thriving drug business... We ought to stop separating people from their families just because they're poor."
The pastor and now-Senate candidate also defended the policy in the months after its passing as members of the Atlanta City Council and the public began to have misgivings following what according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution was an approximately 100% spike in people failing to appear for their court dates -- a scenario cash bail is meant to prevent. The paper reported that it was not clear exactly how many of the failure to appear cases were because of the new city ordinance.
"Atlanta likes to tell a certain story about itself. Truth is, we don't always live up to that story," Warnock said in 2018, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "We've made poverty a crime. We ought to call cash bail what [it] is: Wealth-based detention. Atlanta ought to be leading the way. Leave the ordinance in place."
Meanwhile, City Councilman Julian Bond, according to the paper, had called the policy a "get out of jail free card."
"People facing nonviolent misdemeanor charges who have not been convicted of a crime should not remain in jail simply because they can’t afford bail," Warnock spokesperson Terrance Clark said in a statement. "Reverend Warnock has worked with the faith communities in Georgia on reforming that system and in the Senate, Reverend Warnock will continue to pursue policies that strengthen Georgia communities through criminal justice reform, including cash bail reform."
Criminal justice reform has been a hot topic in recent years, with President Trump touting the First Step Act as one of his chief legislative accomplishments. Further reform efforts petered out in the Senate earlier this year after Democrats filibustered a bill sponsored by Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., because they did not believe it went far enough.
And efforts to end cash bail specifically grabbed headlines again in 2020 after New York state did away with cash bail and the New York Police Department (NYPD) blamed the reform for an increase in crime early in the year.
“Criminal justice reforms serve as a significant reason New York City has seen this uptick in crime,” the NYPD said in a press release in early March.
And during the protests and riots following the death of George Floyd, bail funds gained popularity as a place for those hoping to support demonstrators arrested by police. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and a number of Biden campaign staffers directed donations to the Minnesota Freedom Fund (MFF) in order "to help post bail for those protesting on the ground in Minnesota."
The MFF and other bail funds like it post bail for those who are arrested, then get that money back as long as those they bailed out show up for their court dates. The support was consistent with Biden's stated policy position, which called cash bail a "modern-day debtors' prison."
"The cash bail system incarcerates people who are presumed innocent," the Biden campaign website said. "And, it disproportionately harms low-income individuals. Biden will lead a national effort to end cash bail and reform our pretrial system by putting in place, instead, a system that is fair and does not inject further discrimination or bias into the process."
The MFF specifically was inundated with money and came under scrutiny for paying the bail for a number of alleged violent criminals, including an alleged murderer and a previously convicted rapist. These are crimes that the Atlanta ordinance that Warnock defended does not remove cash bail for, as it only applies to more minor crimes and not serious felonies.
Warnock's opponent, Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga., has lined up her rhetoric on criminal justice reform with President Trump's "law and order" message and earlier this year attacked Harris saying that she "promoted a bail fund that helped put accused violent criminals and rapists back on the street," likely referencing MFF.
The Warnock-Loeffler runoff is one of two races in the state that is critical to the balance of power in the next Congress.
Republicans have already secured 50 seats in the Senate and Democrats have locked down 48, including the two independent senators who caucus with the Democrats. This means that if Republicans win either or both of those races they will give Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., at least two more years in his current job and be in position to have a significant say in the priorities of the incoming Biden administration.
But if Democrats manage to sweep the Georgia runoffs, which are slated for Jan. 5, they will bring the body to essentially a 50-50 tie. In that situation, Vice President-elect Harris would be able to break party-line votes, giving Democrats a de-facto majority.
The other Georgia runoff is between Sen. David Perdue and Democrat challenger Jon Ossoff.
Fox News' Morgan Phillips contributed to this report.