Fulton County considers diversion program to help mentally ill, drug addicts avoid jail

Officials trying to mirror effort in Houston, Texas, that’s yielding success
Fulton County leaders are considering a jail program they say can save taxpayers money and help reduce crime. (Courtesy of Fulton County Board of Commissioners)

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Fulton County leaders are considering a jail program they say can save taxpayers money and help reduce crime. (Courtesy of Fulton County Board of Commissioners)

Credit: Courtesy

Credit: Courtesy

Fulton County leaders are considering a program they say will save taxpayers money and reduce crime by helping people more and jailing them less.

Fulton County Superior Court Chief Judge Robert McBurney on Wednesday explained to commissioners the benefits of a pre-arrest diversion program modeled after the system in Harris County, Texas — home to just under 5 million residents and the city of Houston.

The program would divert people having issues with mental health, substance abuse or homelessness, and get them services they need without costing time or precious space in Fulton’s over-crowded jail.

There are 100 or so “familiar faces” booked a dozen times a year, McBurney said, with rap sheets an inch thick who draw on resources but aren’t really criminals.

“There’s a great case to make that they’re not offenders,” he said. “They’re going to jail because they’re unwell.”

McBurney said they could divert 10,500 bookings a year from the Fulton County Jail and the Atlanta City Detention Center. The program would also remove 4,400 police custody admissions to Grady Health System’s emergency facility. The current proposal could divert an estimated 41 people per day, according to his presentation.

They are researching vendors to manage the facility, but he said Grady was in the best position.

This center, he said, could act as a jumping-off point for a full system of care that includes other outposts in northern and southern Fulton.

The proposal would require $5 million a year to run — split between Fulton and Atlanta — and $2.3 million to retrofit the Atlanta jail.

McBurney, activists, and experts agree a pre-arrest diversion program gives cops another tool beyond arrest.

“Mental health diversion programs can be useful as long as the services that people need are actually funded,” said Katharine Harris, a fellow at Rice University who studied Houston drug courts.

The push for solutions beyond traditional policing is good, she said, and pre-arrest diversion is a step in that right direction.

“We have to have a transition because we can’t go from all police to all community-based,” she said.

Increased social services

A total of 15 metro Atlantans, including Abdur-Rahman and Atlanta City Councilwoman Joyce Sheperd, traveled to Houston in late August to see that system up close.

Officials want to bring to Georgia’s most populated county services that the Texas program provides like a drop-off point so officers can quickly get back into service after an average of 10 minutes; a space for drug and alcohol users to get sober; a medical screening office; access to help inmates with criminal case management and housing; nonemergency medical care; and amenities like meals and access to free public transportation.

Abdur-Rahman said that when Houston gets a 911 call, a dispatcher decides whether to send out an officer or respond with the diversion program.

A total of 15 officials from Fulton County and Atlanta visited a Harris County pre-arrest diversion center and hope to model a local program from that system. (Courtesy the Fulton County Commission)

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This effort has rare bipartisan support among two of the seven-member Fulton commission, with Democrat Khadijah Abdur-Rahman and Republican Bob Ellis sponsoring the project.

“There is no two other people who can be further on the political spectrum, but we understand what’s important for Fulton County,” Abdur-Rahman said.

The future of the Atlanta detention center has been a topic of debate for years. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms wants to raze the jail and replace it with a center focused on equity and community services, which was recommended by a task force. But since his first days in office, Sheriff Patrick Labat has said he needs that facility to treat people humanely because the county jail is so over-crowded that hundreds sleep on the floor every night. Labat now leads the negotiation between the county and the city.

The city council has tried to take the situation from the mayor by creating a task force to negotiate the county’s purchase or lease of the jail, but that group has yet to meet.

What to do with the jail has become a campaign issue for Atlanta’s top mayoral candidates, most of whom support keeping the jail open. The sole outlier is Councilman Antonio Brown, who has said he supports closing the jail.

The Atlanta City Detention Center in June 2019. Christina Matacotta/christina.matacotta@ajc.com

If commissioners approve the diversion center proposal, there would be potentially two simultaneous negotiations between Fulton and Atlanta: Labat who wants beds at the Atlanta jail, and commissioners who want part of the space for this diversion center.

Some county commissioners along with the sheriff and the county manager want to package the diversion center deal with the request for more jail beds.

Labat, who used to run the Atlanta jail, said the 471,000-square-foot building could handle both a diversion program and inmate detention.

County Manager Dick Anderson warned commissioners against having two negotiations with Atlanta at the same time and not thinking about the cost ramifications.

Commissioner Ellis disagreed. “When we have things right here before us and we allow it to get away from us … our problems will only increase and we’ll only pay the piper even more,” he said.

Attorneys from the county and city are currently trading draft proposals for how the diversion center would work.

Ellis said he is worried that this proposal would just get buried again. Fulton Commission Chairman Robb Pitts promised it would not.

“I’m going to keep it on the forefront,” Pitts said.

Credit: WSBTV Videos


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