The city of Atlanta continues its work to overhaul its criminal justice system.
Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms has made it a priority to take measures such as decriminalizing marijuana possession (less than an ounce) and closing the Atlanta City Detention Center as part of this plan.
At its April 19 meeting, which was held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Atlanta City Council took another step toward that goal by unanimously approving a resolution to “establish a working group to review, amend and improve, but not consider the repeal of ordinance 18-O-1045 that instituted bail reform in Atlanta” (Legislative Reference No. 21-R-3261).
According to the resolution document, this change would outlaw cash bail for suspects held in the city jail for minor offenses prior to their first court hearing, since many have in the past spent days or weeks incarcerated while awaiting a hearing. The negative impacts of those situations include individuals losing their jobs even though they had not yet been convicted of a crime.
The resolution also aims to help address Fulton County’s repeat offender problem, in which suspects have been released with low or signature (no) bond and then commit more crimes. According to the resolution document, “it has been reported that since the implementation of the signature bond program through the end of 2020, the number of defendants who are not showing up for court on a signature bond has more than doubled and designated as ‘failure to appear’ (in court) or ‘FTA.’”
Post 1 at-large Councilman Michael Julian Bond, who sponsored the resolution, said he was pleased it was approved, adding, “this reexamination is four years overdue.” The former corrections officer said the 2018 amendment was well intentioned but shifted the bond authority from the Magistrate Court to the corrections department chief, “which was a mistake” that helped lead to the Fulton repeat offender issue.
“The jail system didn’t talk to the court system,” Bond said. “So when people would sign out of the jail, they would either fail to appear or commit more crimes.”
The council was to vote on a second resolution calling for establishing an Atlanta-Fulton joint committee to look into the city possibly selling the center to the county (Legislative Reference No. 21-R-3259), but it was tabled by an 11-3 vote. The resolution could be voted on at the council’s next meeting May 3.
Bond, who also sponsored that resolution, voted no along with Districts 4 and 10 Councilwomen Cleta Winslow and Andrea Boone. District 2 Councilman Amir Farokhi was absent.
Since soon after taking office, Bottoms has wanted to close the detention center and turn it into the Centers of Equity, which 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 new Fulton Sheriff Patrick “Pat” Labat, who took office in January, 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, the 26-year-old detention center, according to the resolution document, can hold about 1,300 inmates but currently averages 150 or less per day. Bond said the vote was tabled so the council members siding with the mayor could have a representative present her case to the council’s public safety committee at its next meeting, prior to the next council meeting May 3. He added the city has a duty to help the county.
“This is about meeting an immediate humanitarian crisis at the Fulton County Jail,” Bond said. “Forty to 80% of inmates are there because of (criminal) cases that originate in the city of Atlanta. We contribute greatly to the population of the county jail. There’s a long history of the city and county working together. That only ceased in the early 2000s under the (Shirley) Franklin administration. That’s when they kind of broke the agreement between the county and the city. That’s when the population of the Fulton County Jail exploded.”
He added the mayor should allow the county to house prisoners at the detention center, even if on a temporary basis.
“If the mayor were to sign an executive order, in 10 minutes the sheriff could bring people over from that overcrowded situation there,” Bond said. “I toured the county jail about two months ago. These are conditions that are worse than Guantanamo Bay and worse than the border (prisons). ... Even if the mayor’s closure paper passes, it would be at least three years before there would be any substantial movement of that building because of our procurement procedures and what would be required to (close it and build 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. But during the April 19 meeting’s public comment period, 75 said they were in favor of keeping it open and 20 said they want it shuttered.
At the council’s public safety and legal administration committee March 4 work session, Bond said he had mixed feelings about the mayor’s plan to close the detention center, adding he wanted to get more information about it and that he hopes the city’s Municipal Court has more input on 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.”