Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and the Fulton County Board of Commissioners, led by Chair Robb Pitts and Sheriff Patrick “Pat” Labat, are in talks about a plan to move some prisoners from the overcrowded county jail to the near-empty city jail.

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Keisha Lance Bottoms

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Robb Pitts

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Patrick “Pat” Labat

In an April 6 letter obtained by the Neighbor, Pitts wrote Fulton would like to house 500 county jail prisoners at the city jail, also known as the Atlanta City Detention Center, through a reentry program.

But Bottoms said the city’s draft letter of intent with the county states the city is currently offering 150 Fulton inmates to be housed at the detention center, also through a reentry initiative. The program would be for prisoners with six months or less left in their sentences.

So as the negotiations continue, the Atlanta City Council wants to make sure the deal is closed quickly.

“The program for 150 people, you know, that’s something I would support. I think it’s a great idea,” Post 1 at-large Councilman Michael Julian Bond said during the council’s public safety and legal administration committee’s April 26 meeting. “But having toured the facility at Rice Street, and seeing the humanitarian crisis there, I’m really more concerned about alleviating the horrible conditions these human beings are underneath right at this very moment we speak.”

At its May 3 meeting, which was held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the council voted 15-0 to approve a resolution (Legislative Reference No. 21-R-3259) urging the city and county to complete the pact by May 31. If the deal is not done by then, a city-county joint committee will be created to evaluate and provide recommendations regarding justice reforms.

However, since all resolutions are non-binding, the deadline may not be enforced.

The resolution was sponsored by Bond and had been tabled at the council’s April 19 meeting so Jon Keen, the city’s COO, could present the mayor’s plan, which calls for closing the detention center and transforming it into the Centers of Equity, at the public safety and legal administration committee meeting a week later.

The new facility would provide diversion programs for individuals who previously would be jailed but could be allowed to enroll in those initiatives under the city’s amended justice system ordinances.

But since taking office in January, Labat has pushed hard to request the city sell the detention center to the county to address the Fulton jail’s overcrowding issues.

The county jail, located on Rice Street and 32 years old, was built to house 2,591 prisoners. But as of March 4, it was holding 2,942, with 234 inmates having to sleep in makeshift beds called boats. Conversely, the 26-year-old detention center can hold about 1,300 inmates but currently averages 150 or less per day.

The council has shifted in its stance to approve Bottoms’ plan to close the city jail and turn it into the Centers of Equity, at least on a temporary basis to allow for the city-county deal. At a May 2019 meeting, the council voted 11-1 (with Bond opposed) to approve a resolution establishing a task force to repurpose the detention center. The task force’s mission was to evaluate a use of the detention center that could benefit the entire community as the new Centers of Equity.

At the council’s public safety and legal administration committee March 4 work session, several council members said they wanted more details on the mayor’s justice reform plan, which includes both closing the city jail and decriminalizing some minor offenses, before voting on it. However, at the council’s April 19 meeting, it did vote to unanimously to approve a resolution to establish a working group to examine bail reform.

Public opinion on the issue has also changed. Since January, residents voicing their opinions on the issue during each meeting’s or work session’s public comment portion have been split. At the May 3 meeting, about 185 individuals spoke about the topic, with about 115 in favor of keeping the city jail open and the rest against it.

During the April 19 meeting, 75 said they were in favor of keeping it open and 20 said they want it shuttered. At the April 26 meeting, 70 individuals said they support keeping the detention center open and 48 want it closed. But at previous meetings and work sessions, more residents said they favored closing the detention center.

At a May 4 news conference on public safety, Bottoms addressed the city-county deal.

“The ball is in Fulton County’s court right now,” she said. “… If it were me, I would not take an all-or-nothing approach – ‘You take my 500 inmates or nothing.’ What I said to Chairman Pitts is send us 150 people who are within six months of completing their sentence and we will continue to evaluate after we get the first 150 to determine if we have enough capacity for more.

“So ask your county commissioners why they have not responded to our letter of intent on the 150 and why that is not a sufficient start for us to continue to work together to address the issues that are facing communities across the metro area, across the state, and many of the same issues you’re seeing across the country.”

In a May 4 news release, Labat said he hopes the city and county can reach an agreement, adding this week there are more than 300 county prisoners having to sleep in boats.

“I remain ready to have meaningful dialog to explore solutions which may include purchasing the Atlanta City Detention Center, or leasing space until a new Fulton County holding facility can be built,” he said.

Labat added he’s also in talks with Cobb County Sheriff Craig Owens Sr. about leasing beds from that county and bringing inmates to Cobb’s jail, and the estimated annual cost is $5 million to $7 million.

District 8 Councilman J.P. Matzigkeit, who represents part of Buckhead, said he’s glad the city jail can house the county jail’s prisoners.

“I want us to work with Fulton County to talk about two things: one is how do we work together to address the root causes of crime, which are addiction, homelessness, mental illness, education, all of those services that people have been talking about,” he said. “We could provide them at the Atlanta jail. I also want to talk about working together to relieve this overcrowding issue and house inmates at (the detention center). So we need to work together on both the services and housing inmates (there).”

Matzigkeit said he hopes the city and county can “develop a long-term strategy for where should the (Fulton) jail be and how we can work together.”

“It may not be the highest and best use to have two jails downtown,” he said. “Maybe we have another jail that is used jointly. I do know we need several years to sort through these and have a long-term plan about how the county and the city would best address housing inmates and providing services.”

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