Report to Atlanta mayor: Close the jail and don’t punish poverty
Draft sketches of what might replace Atlanta’s jail, taken from a new list of recommendations to Atlanta’s mayor.
By Maggie Lee
A task force that Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms tasked to “reimagine” the city’s jail recommends replacing it with a home for a range of services.
“It is our recommendation that ACDC [Atlanta City Detention Center] be closed, demolished, and replaced with the Center for Equity to support the many Atlantans that need its services,” reads part of the new report from the leaders of the Reimagining ACDC Task Force.
That recommendation matches what Mayor Bottoms has already said she favors at the site — a convenient Downtown home for services that might include anything from job training to day care to housing to GED classes. Basically, a place that would be set up for the benefit of folks who need some of the supports that help keep wealthier people out of jail.
The idea is that cities, counties and states criminalize poverty; and that Atlanta should reverse that.
“People do not steal food from the grocery store because they love committing crimes – they steal because they are hungry. It is in everyone’s interest to allow all people to have economic opportunity,” reads the letter from the task force co-chairs: Marilynn B. Winn, Co-Founder & Executive Director, Women on the Rise; Rashad Taylor, senior advisor to the mayor and Bill McGahan, chairman, Georgia Works!
Details in the report come from months of task force outreach to the public, particularly by and to formerly incarcerated people.
Those stakeholders called for a multi-service center like the mayor described. They also called for a range of housing, from affordable housing to supportive housing, sobering beds, sheltering beds, safe-haven beds or crisis-intervention beds for people experiencing behavioral health episodes that do not require hospitalization.
The most modest site sketch in the report shows the jail replaced with a green space and instead calls for spending on new equity center sites throughout the city — though there’s no price tag on that one. The other three sketches propose centers on the jail site ranging in size and in price from a $40 million “Equity Podium” to a $108 million new-build “Center For Equity Campus.” That last one might involve selling some of the site to finance the rest. Any of the plans might include other rent-paying tenants that have an equity mission.
The jail was opened in 1995 at a cost reported at the time of $56 million.
Neither the mayor nor Atlanta City Council have had any time to take any action on the report so far. But activists are stepping up the pressure to get the jail closed, as Council and the mayor agreed to do in 2019.
Part of the idea is that city ordinances — things like less than an ounce of weed — shouldn’t land somebody in jail anyway. Or that the city shouldn’t pay something near $30 million a year to jail people for things like that.
And besides that, Fulton has a jail.
But Fulton’s jail stays full enough that the county regularly wants to rent space in Atlanta’s jail (and does rent space from other counties sometimes.)
And Atlanta police leaned on ACDC earlier this month for booking more than 200 people arrested during anti-police-brutality demonstrations. Most of the arrests were for a single charge of breaking curfew or being in the street.
So if policy doesn’t seem to be caught up with the idea of a city without a jail, the jail reimagining task force has some policy ideas too.
Those ideas include repealing city ordinances that: overlap state law, or relate to animal control or violating public park rules; and repealing the open container ordinance and more.
As for the state, the task force recommends converting traffic violations to a civil matter if those violations don’t present a public safety concern. They also recommend something that has no chance in the Republican-dominated state Legislature: repealing marijuana use and possession law.
The task force leaders, though, acknowledge the problems are very, very big and not limited to Atlanta or Georgia:
“Like most of the world, we are sick of the murder of people of color while engaging in everyday activities. We are tired of poor people being fined, arrested, and jailed because of offenses tied to poverty. We recognize the influence of national news media and leadership driving messages of fear and threat of those who are different. We live and work in communities that suffer from poverty, lack of economic opportunity, drugs, incarceration, depression and hopelessness. We are sick of it all. We must work together toward real solutions.”
Task Force Report (short PDF)
February 2020 Building progress report (large PDF; contains the most sketches)
March 2020 Program Workgroup progress report (short PDF)