Leasing Atlanta’s detention center to Fulton will make city less safe, study says

Study says Fulton jails people at a rate nearly three times that of other urban counties
The Atlanta City Detention Center and the Fulton County Jail.

Credit: AJC File

Credit: AJC File

The Atlanta City Detention Center and the Fulton County Jail.

A new report on Fulton County’s incarceration system found residents will actually be less safe if the county leases more beds to jail people.

The Center for Community Innovations in Community Safety (CICS) at Georgetown University Law Center released its report Thursday after studying Fulton jail data and best practices for jailing. The researchers, CICS Executive Director Tahir Duckett and Georgetown student Lauren Young, also consulted with the nation’s leading corrections experts to assess solutions to the jail’s issues.

After the authors reviewed a meta-analysis of more than 100 previous studies, they found pretrial detention doesn’t prevent reoffending and likely increases the chances of inmates reoffending once they are released. The researchers also found moving Fulton inmates to another facility could further spread the coronavirus to neighboring areas, adding that increased bed capacity in a jail cannot replace adequate health services.

CICS researchers said over incarceration created the overcrowding issue in Fulton, which jails residents at a rate nearly three times that of other urban counties. Fulton jailed an average of 404 residents for every 100,000 individuals aged 15-64 in 2020, according to the report. Other urban counties nationwide only jailed an average of 150 residents per 100,000 individuals in that age range.

“While jurisdictions can release people charged with misdemeanors on their own recognizance, Fulton County detains them by the hundreds, often for lengthy periods of time,” the report said. “Fulton County also fails to commit the resources necessary to process the large number of people it chooses to keep imprisoned.”

Ultimately, the report’s recommendations are consistent with the solutions proposed last month by the ACLU: Fulton needs to improve case processing time for unindicted individuals, reevaluate its bail system, and expand the use and breadth of pre-arrest diversion programs. The ACLU reported that 728 detainees could be released from custody if Fulton implemented those proposals.

Some residents and public leaders want Atlanta to use its mostly-empty detention center to shelter inmates from the county jail, where over 400 people are sleeping on the floor. Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens and Fulton Sheriff Patrick Labat agreed in August to lease 700 beds at the city center to Fulton.

The lease, however, cannot take effect until after the Justice Policy Board analyzes the county jail population within 90 days. Advocates for criminal justice reform, including several city council members, want to repurpose the city building into a center to address poverty and mental illness.

Fulton also wants to reopen the North Fulton Jail Annex on Wednesday, which is nine days before its lease on the city center could begin. But at Wednesday’s Board of Commissioners meeting, it was discussed that Labat doesn’t have the capacity to staff the North Fulton Annex.

During the meeting, Fulton Chairman Robb Pitts said the county still lacks enough personnel at the Fulton jail. Fulton must also provide the manpower at the city center under its lease with Atlanta.

“We don’t have enough personnel for the city jail and you’ve spent several hundred thousand dollars renovating Alpharetta with no personnel,” Pitts said. “So where is that coming from?”

The Atlanta City Council could decide the future of its lease agreement during its meeting on Monday. The CICS researchers reported the lease proposal fails to address the underlying issues at Fulton’s jail — and pointed out that other urban jurisdictions, such as New York City, decreased its jail population from 1991 to 2016 by 55%.

“The Atlanta City Council should reject the lease proposal,” the report concluded. “It is likely that the proposed additional 700 beds will be quickly used up, leaving detainees at Fulton County Jail facing the same humanitarian crisis they face today.”