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Atlanta and Fulton County must work together – for the taxpayers’ benefit

Atlanta City Detention Center (Photo by Kelly Jordan)

By Maria Saporta

The tug-of-war over the future of the Atlanta City Detention Center spotlights the flaw in the state of governance between the City of Atlanta and Fulton County.

Over my four decades as a journalist in Atlanta, I’ve witnessed numerous of aborted attempts to consolidate the governments of Atlanta and Fulton County. Territorial political dynamics have stood in the way of full consolidation.

But a fallback position has been to create city-county alliances, such as the Atlanta-Fulton County Library Board and the Atlanta-Fulton County Water Resource Commission, to address the best way to provide services.

The future of our incarceration infrastructure is a prime case for city and county cooperation – especially when we look at from the perspective of city and county taxpayers.

Here’s the situation.

Fulton County’s Rice Street jail (Photo by Maggie Lee)

Fulton County’s Rice Street jail is significantly over-crowded – providing an almost inhumane situation for the inmates who are there. According to Fulton County Sheriff Patrick Labat, at least 250 inmates are sleeping in “boats” on the floor rather than in beds. The county desperately needs to have more beds to handle its inmates. And let’s acknowledge that 40 percent of the jail’s detainees were arrested by the Atlanta Police Department.

Meanwhile, the city-owned Atlanta City Detention Center in the southern part of downtown has room for 1,300 detainees and now it’s only housing between 30 to 60 inmates any given. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms has advocated closing the facility and replacing or repurposing it with a community center focused on equity.

Fortunately, a move is afoot to try to bring leaders in Atlanta and Fulton County to work on a solution together.

Atlanta City Detention Center (Photo by Kelly Jordan)

Councilmember Michael Julian Bond has sponsored legislation to create a city-county task force to develop a plan that addresses overcrowding at Rice Street by having the county either lease or buy the downtown Detention Center.

Central Atlanta Progress, the Midtown Alliance and the Buckhead Coalition have backed that approach. The legislation was discussed at last week’s meeting of the Atlanta City Council, which then tabled the bill for at least two weeks.

In an encouraging move, Mayor Bottoms has since proposed the city partner with Fulton County by temporarily holding some Fulton inmates in the Detention Center, which could offer diversion and community referral services.

That is a step in the right direction, but it doesn’t go far enough.

If we can get city and county leaders to work together on a permanent solution for both governments, I believe we could come up with a way to alleviate overcrowding at the Rice Street jail while using the Detention Center as a transitional facility with supportive services to help reintroduce inmates to society with minimal recidivism.

Consider the facts.

Keisha Lance Bottoms

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms at a press conference on criminal justice reform (Photo by Maria Saporta)

About 90 percent of City of Atlanta residents live in Fulton County. And nearly half of Fulton County’s 1.06 million residents live in the City of Atlanta. Given the overlap in taxpayers, both governments owe it to their constituencies to find a solution that is the most efficient financially and operationally.

It makes no sense to have Fulton County spend multiple millions of dollars to build a new jail when the city has a building that was designed for that purpose already available.

And it makes no sense for the City of Atlanta to tear down a multimillion-dollar Detention Center in order to create a community center, which could be built on city-owned vacant land for much less money.

Ideally, a joint city-county task force could look at ways to repurpose the existing Detention Center as a place to house Fulton County inmates while also redesigning how to provide better public safety through supportive services and rehabilitation for inmates with minor offenses.

Pat Labat

Pat Labat, Fulton County Sheriff

This is not a new issue.

When Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin was in office, there was deal worked out to sell the Detention Center to Fulton County. But that deal fell apart when Mayor Kasim Reed went into office.

Now we have an opportunity to come up with a solution where both governments – meaning taxpayers in both Atlanta and Fulton County – can benefit.

The personalities involved all call each other friends – Bottoms, Labat and Bond – despite certain disputed allegations that came up last week.  Also Bottoms has been holding private discussions with Fulton County Chairman Robb Pitts.

The opportunity exists for them to come up with a solution to help the city and county deal with issues of incarceration while reimagining public safety and how inmates who have served their time are reintroduced back into society.

But first we have to start with a willingness to explore constructive alliances between Atlanta and Fulton County.

Our elected leaders owe Atlanta and Fulton County taxpayers to work in good faith on the best solution.

Next steps: The proposal for a city-county task force on the Atlanta City Detention Center is currently in the Atlanta City Council’s Public Safety Committee. The issue is expected to be discussed at the next Atlanta City Council Meeting on May 3.

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Maria Saporta

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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1 Comment

  1. Horace April 28, 2021 1:07 pm

    Its interesting to me that our mayor, whose primary function is to manage the day to day operations of the city, wants to get into community services. Seems to me the county is better situated to do this (especially since its one of their functions). So maybe our mayor should have run for County Commissioner.

    Our mayor is sadly misinformed. She alleges Councilman Bond has family working at the jail and thats why he wants it open. He and I both were hired by the city in August of 1989. We both worked at Corrections, he left after a time to pursue politics, I stayed.
    When i started with the city, they ran a Prison on Key Road (for sentenced city ordinance violators) and Pretrial Detention ( which is now a community center, i.e., Gateway). I was assigned to Key Road, my brother to Pretrial. The city jail at the time was housing close to 1300 inmates in a building designed to hold less than 400. People were literally everywhere, you couldn’t see the floor because of the numbers of people. So the city decided to build a new jail.
    This didnt just happen, it was a process of years of asking for RFP’s and designs. The winner os what we see now on Peachtree Street. At the time, a state of the art Direct Supervision facility. It was completed on time and under budget. As a way to defer costs to taxpayers, the city entered into contracts with Federal authorities to house inmates. The jail was perfectly located for this as it was close to the Russell Building. This contract reduced tax payer liability for financing, again another win.
    Fast Forward to the year of the women candidate, SF for mayor and JB for sheriff of Fulton County. These two ladies started the ball rolling on get rid of the jail. JB asked SF to return all the fulton county inmates to the county. This, JB surmised, would force the county commissioners to build her a new jail. Sounded like a plan, so SF ran with it. She returned the inmates to the county which immediately caused them to be overcrowded. BUT JB got in some financial trouble and her plan was blown up, but SF keep going. SF couldn’t understand why we had a jail anyway since they didnt have one in Philadelphia. SO they broke what wasn’t broken.

    Maynard Jackson and Michael Lomax solved this problem, SF and JB recreated it and mayors since have been trying to sell it. I dont understand why folks running the city want to be real estate brokers, selling city assets etc. The jail is an assist, just ask the banks that have loaned the city money who have accepted the jail as collateral ( the original municipal court, which was torn down to build Public safety HQ, both building financed with jail as collateral) These things could not have been done without it.
    Maynard and Michael solved this problem. They agreed that all should come to ACDC (city jail) be sorted out there and those that needed county jail would be sent twice weekly. This assisted the county with their housing. This fixed the problem. These men knew they represented mostly the same people and acted accordingly, in the best interest of the taxpayer. Unlike theses other two who have higher aspirations and view their time as mayor as a spring board to something else ( and that hasn’t worked out so far for SF).

    If Keisha would spend more time managing the city and not trying to be the AOC of the south, maybe we can get a handle of the crime problem, maybe if the elected leader of the city understood that many if not most of her constituents live in Fulton County, she would better understand the need to work with them. Maybe if she cared she would work with county to help them, which in turns helps her. Maybe if those before her had not deliberately crippled the operation this discussion would not be taking place. Maybe if she didn’t cripple it ( refusing to house inmates for ICE or the county or anyone else, changing the city code and bailable offenses, etc).

    All of this because she said she missed her daddy when he went to jail, so now no jail for anyone. Talk about personal interests .Report

    Reply

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