Atlanta City Council votes to require study for Fulton to lease detention center

Credit: AJC File

Credit: AJC File

The Atlanta City Council voted against legislation that could have accelerated plans to use the city detention center to house inmates from Fulton County’s overcrowded jail.

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens and Fulton Sheriff Patrick Labat agreed in August to lease 700 beds at the Atlanta City Detention Center to Fulton. The lease, however, cannot take effect until after the Justice Policy Board analyzes the county jail population within 90 days, according to an amendment authored by City Councilman Jason Dozier.

City Councilman Michael Julian Bond authored an amendment to remove the clause requiring the study’s completion before the lease could begin. But after a long and contentious meeting Monday, the council voted 9-5 against Bond’s ordinance.

The city’s detention center is an 11-story building that sits mostly empty on Peachtree Street with fewer than 50 detainees a night. Former Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms sought to close the facility and repurpose it into an equity center, which is what activists envision as a place to address homelessness, mental illness and poverty in the community.

Several leaders, including Bond, have advocated for the city to use its detention center to house inmates from Fulton’s jail, which has been described by some officials as a “humanitarian crisis.” Amid an impassioned plea to pass his ordinance, Bond called the jail study results “a spreadsheet” that shouldn’t prohibit efforts to provide beds for the hundreds of people sleeping on the county jail’s floor.

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

“I will challenge our esteemed lawyers here and even the great ACLU to go and talk to the people who are sleeping on the floor and ask them if they can wait,” Bond said.

Bond’s comments come after an ACLU study found nearly half (46.6%) of Fulton’s detainees have not been formally charged with a crime. Twelve percent of Fulton’s inmates were in custody because they can’t pay bail. And 3.6% of Fulton’s inmates could have qualified for arrest diversion programs.

The ACLU says 728 Fulton detainees could potentially be released from custody if the county indicted people charged with felonies in a timely manner, and by not jailing people who can’t afford bond.

The report also advises Fulton to incentivize use of diversion programs, and to grant bail to those charged with misdemeanors by imposing conditions to ensure the person attends court and to protect the safety of any other person.

At least one person has died at the county jail since September. Labat says several illegal weapons have been confiscated at the jail. The jail has also endured several lawsuits for years, including one in which a federal judge called the jail’s conditions “repulsive.”

The council initially voted in a 7-7 tie to table Bond’s cause, forcing Council President Doug Shipman to vote against tabling it. During the debate over the measure, City Councilmembers Dozier, Liliana Bakhtiari, Antonio Lewis, and Keisha Sean Waites spoke in vehement opposition.

Bakhtiari said the city has to ensure that leasing the beds will not further perpetuate mass incarceration. Lewis said the debate is being politicized.

“If they (Fulton’s detainees) were given the option to go home or be transferred to another facility, I’m pretty confident that those 728 families and individuals would choose to go home,” Waites said. “This is not a humanitarian crisis. This is a leadership crisis.”