Atlanta mayor, city council differ on status and future of the jail

The city of Atlanta's detention center near the intersection of Peachtree Street and Memorial Drive.

Credit: Stephen Deere

Credit: Stephen Deere

The city of Atlanta's detention center near the intersection of Peachtree Street and Memorial Drive.

Shortly after Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms signed a piece of legislation in 2019 regarding the city’s jail, her office claimed in a press release that the resolution had authorized the closure of the city’s detention center.

And in multiple press releases over the next year, closing the city jail became one of the criminal justice reforms the mayor has often cited as a success from City Hall.

The truth about that success is more nuanced. The jail remains open and for the first 20 days of November its average daily inmate population stood at 29, a spokeswoman said. But it has the capacity to house approximately 1,300 inmates.

According to the city’s 2021 fiscal budget, its operation is costing taxpayers $16.5 million. The jail employs 181 people.

Atlanta City Council members have acknowledged the burden on taxpayers, but also have yet to weigh in on how the city would pay to house criminals elsewhere, especially at a time when violent crime is on the rise and the council has just approved legislation that requires individuals arrested in connection with street racing to be jailed.

The 2019 legislation that Bottom’s signed declaring she had authorized closing the jail created a task force to study repurposing the jail as a Center for Equity, a discussion that was intensified by social unrest over police brutality, a global pandemic, and a rise in violent crime in the city in the months ahead.

Yet as the chaos on the streets played out, Bottoms’ office continued to talk as if the jail had been closed, a pillar in her efforts to reform criminal justice in Atlanta.

“Since taking office, Mayor Bottoms has implemented a number of actions to reform Atlanta’s criminal justice system. including the elimination of cash bail bonds, equipping all officers with body cams, and closing our city jail,” a spokesman wrote in a June press release.

The claim was repeated in another press release in late October.

“She keeps saying it’s closed, but there hasn’t been any legislation before the council closing the jail,” said Atlanta City Council President Felicia Moore. “For me, a lot more discussion needs to be had.”

A spokesman for Bottoms said that the mayor’s statements have been misinterpreted.

“We have not asserted (detention center) is closed,” he said. “The Bottoms Administration has made policy changes to significantly reduce the number of people detained and is continuing with plans to close the current jail facility. The Administration has always planned to have some form of a facility for processing for a smaller amount of necessary detention moving forward, and we have always stated as such.”

The Task Force to Reimagine the Atlanta City Detention Center issued its report in March, shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic and mass protests over police brutality shook cities across the country.

“It is our recommendation that (the city’s jail) be closed, demolished, and replaced with the Center for Equity to support the many Atlantans that need its services,” it said.

The Center for Equity would treat people with behavioral health issues, help the homeless and provide financial counseling — efforts aimed at the root causes that might put someone in a municipal jail cell.

By the time the report was unveiled, several of Bottoms’ initiatives — decriminalizing several low-level offenses; launching a pre-arrest diversion initiative; and reforming municipal cash bail — had already whittled down the jail’s population from about 500 inmates since she took office to roughly 100.

Bottoms also ended a long-term contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement because of President Donald Trump’s policies that separated children from their parents at the Mexican border.

Still, during a three week period in June, 468 people were booked at the jail because of the unrest related to the protests, but they were quickly released on their own recognizance within a day, according a presentation from Interim Corrections Chief R. A. Mitchell to a city council committee in June.

Where to house city offenders?

While overall crime is down, during the pandemic violent crime has since skyrocketed in the city.

According to the most recent crime statistics on the Atlanta Police Department’s website, murders are up by 42 percent and the number of shooting victims has risen by 39 percent, making some citizens nervous about the prospect of getting rid the jail. It holds those arrested on municipal misdemeanor charges and some charged with state misdemeanors, such as shoplifting.

Occasionally, the city jail briefly houses a federal inmate or two for the U.S. Marshals Office.

Earlier this month, the council passed an ordinance mandating people arrested in connection with street racing remain in jail until an appearance before a judge, usually within 24 to 48 hours of arrest.

“If we don’t have a jail of our own how are we going to have to pay someone to house these individuals?” said Councilman Michael Julian Bond, who sponsored the street racing ordinance. “This gets to be very complicated.”

Tearing down the building would also require council approval, council members said.

“[The mayor] does not have the authority to divest ourselves of the jail by edict,” said longtime Councilman Howard Shook.

Whether it’s demolished or not, the 11-story, 471,000 square-foot detention center that sits in the heart of Atlanta at Peachtree Street NW and Memorial Drive presents a significant financial problem for the city.

Although legislation pushed by Bottoms did away with requiring cash bail for some low-level offenses, such as urinating in public. The jail held those arrested on more serious municipal offenses such as Driving Under the Influence are detained until they can appear before a judge.

The city’s jail also houses individuals charged with state and federal offenses waiting to be transferred to other facilities.

Bottoms’ task force report recommends repealing city violations that mirror those of the state so that police can charge offenders under Georgia law and avoid booking them at the municipal jail.

It also recommends eliminating less serious offenses under city code such as carrying open containers of alcohol in public.

But all of that would require council approval as well.

And some recommendations, such as calling on state lawmakers to repeal restrictions on marijuana use that land some people in municipal jail, would need state approval.

However, most city officials agree that the facility is draining Atlanta’s finances at a time when the city can least afford it.

“The ongoing practice of operating this building at two or three percent of its capacity is an incredibly inefficient and ineffective use of taxpayer dollars,” said Councilman Matt Westmoreland.