By David Pendered

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ two major criminal justice reform efforts face rising scrutiny from the Atlanta City Council as her reelection campaign gets underway.

atlanta jail
This exhibit of babies and infants in a cage was among the visuals brought to the Atlanta city jail by some who called for the jail to stop housing arrestees and detainees. Credit: Kelly Jordan

Bottoms had placed carceral reform at the center of her administration when she took office in January 2018, well before George Floyd’s death in police custody in May 2020 prompted nationwide reviews of police and court practices.

Now, the Atlanta City Council has called for a review of Bottoms’ bail reform program, and her administration has just one appointee on an 11-member review committee that’s to deliver a report by late June. Her plans to convert the city jail into a center of human services face a ticking clock on the council as it considers legislation that could lead to the jail’s use to ease overcrowding at the Fulton County Jail.

Atlanta City Councilmember Michael Julian Bond sponsored both measures the council considered Monday.

The council voted Monday to approve a proposal to review, but not repeal, the city’s program that eliminated cash bonding for certain non-violent offenses. The concern to be addressed is the rate of no-shows has more than doubled since the program was created, and a third of the folks who don’t appear in court commit some other act after being released on the initial charge, according to the legislation.

Bond said Tuesday this type of review was part of the council’s original concept for bail reform. Former Atlanta Councilmember Kwanza Hall had discussed similar legislation in 2016, before he lost a 2017 bid for mayor.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. File/Credit: © Celine Admiraal, CAPhotoVision

Bond said that in the haste to adopt the mayor’s proposal, the council did not give adequate consideration to existing programs, such as a pre-trial release program that had been around for some 30 years.

“The jail reform we passed was a disaster,” Bond said. “There was an attitude from the administration similar to what we are experiencing on the jail issue – of being recalcitrant in acknowledging there was a problem with the proposal.”

The council voted for the signature bond program the month after Bottoms took office. In doing so, the council complied with Bottoms’ administration push for the council to enact her plan within weeks after it was presented.

Atlanta City Council President Felicia Moore – now campaigning for mayor – was among the opponents to the fast-tracking of the Bottoms’ legislation. Moore noted at the time that the administration was calling for a vote without giving the council time to convene a work session to hear comments from the public. Other council members voiced concerns, before deciding give the new mayor a major achievement.

Michael Julian Bond
Michael Julian Bond

In related action Monday, the council acquiesced to a request from Bottoms’ administration to give it more time to present its plans for the city jail. The council deferred action on a proposal to create a working group to consider the potential of a city/collaboration to ease overcrowding at the Fulton County Jail.

Bottoms wants to turn the city jail into a center for human services. Fulton County Sheriff Patrick Labat is leading an effort to use the city jail to ease overcrowding at the Fulton County Jail. Labat served a decade as chief of corrections for Atlanta.

Bond said Tuesday the arrestees held in overcrowded conditions at the county jail are the ones suffering from the impasse over the fate of the city jail:

atlanta jail, statue of liberty
Demonstrators who sought to have Atlanta stop housing detainees for federal immigration authorities brought this sign, with a sticker that calls for a stop to family separations. Credit: Kelly Jordan
  • “The people who are suffering are the people over there in the Fulton County Jail, who have to live in these conditions. On any given day, from 40% to close to 80% are there because of cases that have originated in the City of Atlanta, whom the Atlanta Police Department have taken to that facility.
  • “Can you imagine being in the county jail, knowing that Atlanta has space to accommodate you, and you’re sharing, with 70 other arrestees, a shower or toilet, existing in a 6 by 8 [foot] cell, when you’re supposed to be 6 feet apart because of COVID. And trying to deal with your case.”

The debate over the fate of the city jail has roiled since Atlanta took steps to reduce its population. The city jail no longer houses federal detainees. The jail was designed to house about 1,300 arrestees and it houses about 150 a day, according to the legislation. That’s an occupancy rate of about 12%.

The question of Atlanta providing human services has yet to gain much public discussion.

Bond noted that Fulton and DeKalb counties deliver human services as part of their mandate. The city does not have those duties and would have to identify funds to deliver programs.

“It has been argued that Fulton County is not providing the level of services that the mayor proposes be delivered,” Bond said. “But in Fulton County, we’re already paying for those services and we would be paying double, to the city and the county, to deliver human services at the city jail.”

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written...

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