Atlanta-Fulton jail deal prompts questions, pushback from diversion program

The proposed deal to lease out 700 city of Atlanta detention center beds to Fulton County was heralded this week as a solution to overcrowding at the county’s jail. But it also prompted questions about the logistics of the agreement and some pushback from the organization working with the city to open an arrest diversion center at the facility.

Under the agreement announced Monday, Fulton County could house up to 700 inmates at the Atlanta City Detention Center for four years — or longer.

The deal requires approval from the Atlanta City Council and Fulton County Commission. The county would pay $50 per day for each person housed at the city’s facility, with the city also entitled to 65% of the phone and commissary fees generated there.

That means the county would pay the city over $1 million for every month it had the maximum 700 detainees at Atlanta’s jail.

Mayor Andre Dickens’ office said in a statement Monday that he “intends to invest revenue from the agreement in public safety, diversion services and homelessness services that are priorities of the administration.”

The Policing Alternatives and Diversion initiative — which provides resources to people accused of nonviolent offenses who might otherwise be booked into jail — pushed back on that provision, telling The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in a statement that “the goal of PAD’s services as well as the Diversion Center is to reduce the number of people in jail.

“Funding any of these activities with revenues generated from incarcerating the same people we seek to assist is incompatible with our mission as well as our values,” the statement says.

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Credit: Hyosub Shin

PAD is partnering with the city and county to build the new Center for Diversion and Services within the detention center building, providing a place police can send people with behavioral health issues instead of booking them into jail.

“Expanding the number of jail cells will not address the fact that dozens of people every day are being put into those cells simply for the fact that they are poor or don’t have a home; and then stay there twice as long if they also struggle with mental health,” the statement said.

Dickens’ office didn’t comment on PAD’s statement Wednesday, but said Monday that he is committed to “fully repurposing the (detention center) facility for non-incarceration purposes” after the lease with Fulton County is up. “But we are also confronted by a real and immediate crisis of overcrowding at the Fulton County Jail.”

ExploreAtlanta on track to see 450 arrests averted in 2021 through diversion program

Activist groups that make up the Communities Over Cages Alliance, a coalition pushing to close the jail, immediately denounced the proposed agreement Monday.

The deal with the county presents questions about staffing, timing and legal liability — issues that may come up when the council’s public safety committee considers the measure on Monday. If it’s approved by the committee, it would go before the full council for a vote on Aug. 15. The Fulton County Commission is set to meet two days later.

Fulton County Sheriff Patrick Labat revealed more details about the agreement Tuesday, telling the AJC that if the lease is approved, his first step would be to move roughly 300 women currently held at the county’s Union City facility to the Atlanta jail.

The sheriff also said the lease as currently written could extend past four years, but that the charge to the county would triple to $150 per person per day. Labat said he hopes that four years is enough time for a new county jail to open.

The deal makes sense, the sheriff said, because fewer people in the county’s overcrowded Rice Street facility means fewer people have to sleep on the ground. The city’s 11-story detention center is mostly empty — in part because of a 2018 city ordinance that eliminated cash bonds, which kept many low-level offenders behind bars.

“It’s a phased approach that becomes a win-win for everybody,” Labat said, adding that county staff will manage the inmates transferred to the detention center from the jail, and the county would hold legal liability for jail inmates at the detention center.

Staffing could present one obstacle to unlocking that additional space.

The nationwide shortage of law enforcement officers has led Labat’s agency to offer $9,000 signing bonuses to compete for the best talent. The sheriff said he has 127 vacancies and would need to hire 20 more officers to start the second phase of moving male inmates into the city’s building

Labat said he knows the agreement with the city would take a lot of money. “But what’s it worth to treat people like humans?” Labat said. “When we treat even one person like they’re human, the money doesn’t matter.”

Getting access to 700 beds in the Atlanta detention center is only a Band-Aid compared to a new jail.

A feasibility study is set to be completed in December looking into the viability of a proposed $500 million new jail in Fulton.

While some council members have previously pushed for the city to help relieve county jail overcrowding, the proposal is sure to yield criticism from others. Atlanta Councilmember Liliana Bakhtiari said Wednesday that she would push for a concrete end date to the lease and is committed to razing the building.