While the debate over whether to keep the Atlanta City Detention Center open as a jail or close it and redevelop it into a holistic community facility rages on, one thing most everyone can agree on is the need to change the city’s ordinances and policies that allowed some individuals with minor offenses to be housed there for long periods.
“I think the council has been in lockstep to see that facility cease to exist (in that way),” District 7 Atlanta City Councilman Howard Shook said. “It’s a debtor’s prison. It really was. If (someone) had to pay a $100 fine for not having inflated tires, (they could be jailed there if they didn’t have the money) and on and on and on.
“We’re in agreement with that, that role needs to cease. I think the problem, though is in terms of what the next phase is, what are all of these other things that can be done with it?”
Shook and others spoke at the council’s public safety and legal administration committee’s Jan. 21 work session on the center. It was held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In September 2018, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms signed an executive order to end the decades-long contract the city had with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and transfer all remaining immigrant inmates out of the center.
The order also states the city received a $150,000 grant from private foundations to create design concepts for the center’s future use. Designing Justice + Designing Spaces, an Oakland, California-based architectural and real estate development firm, was hired to formulate the design concepts.
In May 2019, the council approved a resolution on behalf of Bottoms to establish a task force to examine how to repurpose the center into a holistic community facility.
The task force includes representatives of both local government agencies and individuals picked from nominations submitted by the public, including those who have been detained at the center.
There have been five task force meetings since 2019, with four from July through December 2019 and a fifth two months later. The sixth meeting was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. From those meetings, four design concepts have been chosen. In May the task force submitted its report to Bottoms. The task force has worked with several groups on plans to redevelop the center.
Though Bottoms did not attend the work session, several mayor’s office representatives did and presented plans on how the city will transform the detention center while overhauling Atlanta’s ordinances and policies to have some misdemeanor offenses require fines paid and not jail time.
“Our goal through all of these efforts has been to make the city safer and more equitable,” said Jon Keen, the city’s chief operating officer. “We do this by implementing some common-sense justice reforms that will align the functions of our justice system with current and future needs and allow closure of (the center).”
Keen said the city has presented a five-part plan to execute those changes.
“First, expand diversion offerings and implement changes to APD policies and practices to reduce arrests for municipal code violations,” he said. “Second, update the city code in phases to remove incarceration as a penalty for certain municipal code offenses and place a stronger emphasis on community service. Third, renovate the Municipal Court to support improve booking and processing of any arrests.
“Fourth, build space at the proposed new Public Safety Training Academy to accommodate the needs of the PAT3 program and to support the finalized plan. Fifth, close (the center), finalize decisions on repurposing the facility and/or land, and begin the process to implement the vision for Center for Equity.”
Keen said the 471,000-square-foot facility opened in 1995 and can hold up to 1,300 inmates. When the center opened, the city had more court and jail duties, but after Atlanta’s City Court was abolished in 2004, its role was diminished.
Today, felony cases are only handled by the Fulton County Jail and court system, and the city’s Municipal Court hears only city ordinance violation cases and some traffic offense cases. Keen said, according to 2019 data, the average number of inmates serving sentences in the detention center was 32, and their average incarceration sentence was only eight days.
“Given the 2019 data, the average number of daily bed requirements was less than 4% of (the center’s) capacity,” he said.
Matthew Bartleet, director of the mayor’s office of innovation delivery and performance, said the city’s department of corrections has had a steady budgetary decline from $39.9 million in fiscal 2017 to $17.5 million in fiscal 2021, due to a decrease in inmates housed at the detention center. Full-time staffing over the same period has dropped from 395 employees to 235.
The city plans to reduce the department of corrections’ full-time employees from 236 to 138 by abolishing the security contract, not backfilling for retirements and other vacancies and redeploying the Grady Memorial Hospital unit to the Atlanta Police Department. Bartleet said the city’s plan would save it about $2.3 million annually and an incremental amount of about $2.4 million that would go to the police’s budget due to the realignment of the Grady positions.
For the plan’s justice reforms, the city will gather more feedback on the plan in January and February, introduce legislation to adopt the final recommended plan to the committee March 1 and adopt the final plan and introduce associated legislation to start implementation March 15.
Keen later said he didn’t know when any other phases of the plan, such as hiring a developer if the city moves forward on repurposing the center, would be implemented.
Council President Felicia Moore asked him how much it would cost the city to build the proposed Municipal Court and training facilities. Keen said the Municipal Court project could cost $5 million to $10 million and he didn’t yet have a cost for the training academy.
New Fulton Sheriff Patrick “Pat” Labat, who took office Jan. 1, has already requested the city sell the detention center to the county to address its overcrowded jail issues.
After some council members suggested the committee host a future work session with Labat and possibly some county commissioners, District 12 Councilwoman Joyce Sheperd, who chairs the committee, said she would do that. She added county court system representatives should also be invited.
Sheperd also said she believes the council members should tour the center, the area where the Municipal Court development would be built and the Fulton County Jail to get a better look at the situation.
Shook and council members J.P. Matzigkeit (District 8) and Marcia Collier Overstreet (District 11) pointed out the city’s recent increase in crime – there were 157 reported murders in 2020, a 22-year high – as a reason to reconsider Bottoms’ plan.
“What a difference a year makes,” Overstreet said. “100% with the rise in crime, we need to explore all the options available to us.”
There were four hours of public comment recorded prior to the work session via voicemail. Ten individuals spoke in favor of keeping the center open before one gave an opposing opinion.
“I’m calling to request the city to allow Fulton County to use our city jail,” one woman said. “I think it would be a proactive measure in making Atlanta safe. .. It’s pretty incredible what’s happened in the last two years. I’ve been in Atlanta for 20 years and have never seen anything like it. It’s disheartening and people are leaving. … Lastly, I think that a women’s wellness center could be placed in the (former) AJC building on Marietta Street.”
One man said, “I really urge you to support the closure of the Atlanta City Detention Center. A small group of detached and outspoken Buckhead residents do not speak for all of Atlanta. We’ve seen time and time again that jails and impulsive criminalizations do not keep us safe. It’s time to pursue new strategies to protect our community. … We need the jail closed as soon as possible.”