Starting later this month, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms plans to bring to the Atlanta City Council for approval a phased plan to reform the city’s justice system.
But some council members said they want more details included in the proposal before voting on it, including the plan to transform the Atlanta City Detention Center into the Centers of Equity.
“One of the things that’s missing for me is, before I would consider any aspect of this proposal, where is the proposal and the schematics and the financial analysis on the proposed Centers of Equity?” Post 1 at-large Councilman Michael Julian Bond said. “How are we going to pay for that? How are we going to pay for the ongoing costs of the services? I would like to see that before I consider this because this, what’s on the table today, fundamentally, can affect our operations of government.”
Bond spoke about the issue at the council’s public safety and legal administration committee March 4 work session, which was held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Bond, who said he has mixed feelings about the city’s reform plan, added he hopes its Municipal Court, which is at the core of the proposal, has more say in the matter moving forward.
“I recently took a tour of the court, and it’s clear that … though they may have been met with (by the mayor’s office), they have not been involved in the development of this proposal,” he said. “That concerns me a great deal. …
“I would be uncomfortable approving a plan without a ballpark estimate on costs. … To be honest, when I went over there for a tour, they were not in support of this at all. They’re a separate branch of government, and they have dominion over the court building. Is that too much to ask?”
Atlanta COO Jon Keen, speaking on behalf of the mayor’s office, said the plan has three phases. According to his presentation document, the plan has five points: “expand diversion offerings and implement changes to (police) policies and practices to reduce arrests for municipal code offenses; 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; renovate the Municipal Court to support improved booking and processing of any arrests; build space at the proposed new Public Safety Training Academy to accommodate the needs of the PAT3 program and to support the finalized plan and close (the detention center), finalize decisions on repurposing the facility and/or land and begin the process to implement the vision for Centers of Equity.”
Keen said the first phase of legislation, which deals with park and public space violations, is expected to be introduced in March. Phase 2 address business and land-use-related code violations and animal control violations, and Phase 3 focuses on offenses with a parallel state statute and other remaining city ordinances. The last two phases will be introduced in the late spring and early summer, respectively.
New Fulton County Sheriff Patrick “Pat” Labat wants the county to buy the detention center from the city 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 it is holding 2,942 today, with 234 inmates having to sleep in makeshift beds called boats.
Conversely, Keen said, the detention center was built in 1995 and can hold up to 1,300 inmates. It was constructed at a time when the city had larger court and jail responsibilities. But when the city court was abolished in 2004, those duties were greatly diminished.
In 2019 the detention center had about 15,000 total bookings, about 2,000 total incarcerations and a daily population of individuals serving sentences of 32, with an average incarceration sentence of only eight days. Its average daily bed requirements amounted to 3% for sentenced individuals and 1% for pretrial individuals.
Council members who have toured both facilities said they’re “like night and day,” said Council President Felicia Moore. Those who spoke at the previous work session and have toured the facility said they were very concerned by the conditions they saw at the county jail.
Keen said part of the city’s reform plan includes building an inmate holding area in the proposed Atlanta Public Safety Training Academy on Key Road. Bond said he’s worried about the cost for that facility, the Municipal Court renovations and the Centers of Equity construction, which he estimated at between $25 million and $40 million total.
Keen said the court building project is expected to cost from $5 million to $10 million, but he doesn’t yet have an estimate on the other two facilities.
District 7 Councilman Howard Shook said he agreed with Bond in that the reform plan will go nowhere with the council until more details are divulged. Shook also took issue with the city’s plans to may party house offenses punishable by fines and not jail time.
When Keen said he couldn’t provide more info on party house offenses, Shook replied in part, “Do you consider strip club owners, who own party houses in residential districts, who laugh at everybody while they make all their money or developers who go out and completely clear-cut properties, what do you say? They don’t go to jail? It’s a $1,000 fine? Is that what you guys want? It’s not going to change.”
District 12 Councilwoman Joyce Sheperd, the committee’s chair, said while she’s not against the mayor’s office’s plan to close the detention center, she said addressing the county jail’s overcrowding issues, exacerbated by the pandemic, which has delayed jury trials, is critical. Sheperd met a woman outside the Fulton jail who said her son has been in jail since April and “has not been to court yet.”
She also said the city should work with the county and state to leverage their resources to improve outcomes for inmates with mental health problems.
Despite Labat’s pitch, Bottoms remains steadfast in her plan to turn the detention center into the Centers of Equity.
Also, residents are split on the issue, though the majority of residents who have spoken out on the matter, including voters, support closing the detention center. At the work session, nine of the 10 individuals who spoke on the issue during the public comment portion are in favor of shuttering it.