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