While struggling to address the overcrowding crisis at the Rice Street jail, Fulton County officials asked the city to increase the number of inmates it would take into its care and loosen the requirements on what type of inmates can be transferred.
According to the mayor’s office, Fulton County Board of Commissioners Chairman Robb Pitts sent a letter to the mayor on Sept. 15 officially asking for the changes.
Dickens responded that the city wouldn’t currently accommodate either request.
The first-term mayor wrote back that city staff had approved 719 inmates booked into the Fulton County jail that fit the requirements to be transferred, but will only take 284 more to meet the 700-inmate cap.
“I remain committed to doing my part in making this humanitarian intervention to alleviate overcrowding at the Fulton County Jail and meet our community’s public safety needs for the term of the agreement,” the mayor wrote.
Pitts said Friday that he didn’t see the mayor’s letter as a rejection, but as an indication that the county needs to fill all 700 of the leased beds before Dickens feels comfortable approaching Atlanta City Council about expanding occupancy.
“I’m very appreciative of the mayor’s response and his thoughtful analysis of the situation,” Pitts said. “The ball is back in the sheriff’s court where it belongs.”
Pitts said the reason he was given as to why only about 400 beds out of the approved 700 are being used at the detention center was that the city was rejecting inmates that Labat had deemed qualified for the transfer. Dickens’ letter, stating that the city has approved 719 inmates, indicates otherwise, Pitts said. That means the problem is inadequate staff to supervise more inmates, which is the sheriff’s job to work out, Pitts said.
Natalie Ammons, communications director for the sheriff’s office, said Labat has told commissioners that regardless of how many beds the county leases at Atlanta City Detention Center, its “operational capacity” is 456 due to staffing limitations.
“The only way the operational capacity can increase at ACDC is if we provide more staff, and that currently is not possible due to staffing needs at the Rice Street Jail, and our other facilities,” she said.
Sheriff’s office data lists 110 job vacancies for sworn officers as of Sept. 18, with many of those at the jail despite commissioners’ approval this year of raises and other hiring incentives.
Labat has proposed transferring up to 1,000 inmates to private prisons in Tallahatchie, Mississippi, and Folkston, Georgia — at least 300 miles away from Fulton County and at a cost of $40 million per year. County commissioners greeted the idea with skepticism this week.
The Atlanta Circuit Public Defender’s Office is seeking a writ of mandamus to prevent the transfers, saying the distance would severely impair attorneys’ ability to communicate with and represent their clients. About 80% of county inmates are represented by public defenders.
If the county fills all 700 of its leased beds at the detention center, and combs the jail for low-level nonviolent offenders to release, that should go a long way toward reducing chronic overcrowding, Pitts said.
“If we do those two things, that would negate the need to transfer any inmates to Mississippi or south Georgia,” he said.
Dickens said Atlanta would not be open to amending the terms of the agreement until Fulton County makes progress in efforts to mitigate overcrowding through actions like expediting court trials and speeding up case resolution for misdemeanors.
“I remain committed to adhering to and fulfilling the current (agreement’s) goals, before engaging in further discussions regarding amending the (agreement) that will necessitate staff negotiation and approval from the Atlanta City Council,” he wrote.
Pitts called particular attention to those points at the end of Dickens’ letter. All of the system’s “justice partners” need to work together on greater efficiency and alternatives to incarceration in seeking to permanently reduce jail population, Pitts said.