Oftentimes, reality and lofty dreams do not necessarily line up—at least not immediately.
This sentiment rang true during a recent fight over criminal justice reform in the state’s capital where the city council debated leasing beds in the underutilized Atlanta City Detention Center (ACDC) to Fulton County.
In the face of scores of impassioned—and sometimes downright insulting—activists, the city’s progressive councilmembers stood firm and voted to aid Fulton County—thereby postponing plans to repurpose the city jail. Given the circumstances, this was a reasonable choice in the short term, and with some jails overcrowding in Georgia, this deal demonstrates the kind of goodwill between city and county governments that other localities can learn from.
Back in 2019, then Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms signed legislation aimed at closing the ACDC. “No longer will Atlanta be in the jail business. Today, we have taken another critical step forward in the march for criminal justice reform by beginning the work to repurpose our jail to serve the people of Atlanta as a Center for Equity,” Bottoms said. She had hoped that the ACDC would become a “diversion center designed to keep at-risk people out of jail,” wrote 11 Alive News.
Fast forward a few years, and Bottoms’ dream hasn’t come to fruition. The 1,300-bed facility is still open. Even before Bottoms made her announcement, the ACDC was only lightly used—although expensive to maintain—and today, not much has changed.
Meanwhile, the Fulton County jail system is bursting at the seams. “Overcrowding at the jail is an emergency situation, and my team and I are exploring every opportunity to ameliorate this crisis,” noted Fulton County Sheriff Patrick Labat. To begin with, Fulton County secured a deal to house around 500 people in Cobb County’s jail, but that’s not enough. Fulton’s system is still stressed.
“We’re confronted with hundreds of men sleeping on the floor throughout the hallways,” Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens explained. “The humanitarian response to that is to do something.” And there’s good reason he should feel pressure to act, considering that many of those in Fulton’s overcrowded jails are Atlanta citizens—his constituents.
In order to alleviate these issues, the city council voted 10-4 to lease 700 of the ACDC’s beds to Fulton County, but this elicited an uproar from activists. They contend that Atlanta should realize Bottoms’ dream of repurposing the ACDC and that many of those housed in Fulton County’s jails are nonviolent offenders who shouldn’t be incarcerated in the first place.
“They want to paint this narrative that [the Fulton County jail on] Rice Street is full of violent people,” asserted the Southern Center for Human Rights’ Devin Franklin. “It’s over 650 people who are in for charges such as shoplifting, misdemeanor cases.”
Opponents of the ACDC lease make fair points, and I tend to agree that many of those suspected of small-time, nonviolent crimes—particularly first-time offenders—would be better served if they weren’t booked and put in jail. Time spent there—regardless of guilt or innocence—increases the likelihood that suspects will be rearrested, which harms public safety and demands more public resources.
What’s more, jails are troubling places. Being housed there can lead to lasting trauma and harm livelihoods. After all, it’s hard to hold down a job while you’re stuck in jail. Put simply, there are reasons why state, county and city policymakers should want to responsibly reduce jail populations.
There are plenty of ways of accomplishing this, too, but in many cases, it would take action from the state legislature, which would impact the entire state. Some options include further reforming the cash bail system to ensure that it doesn’t adversely impact people too poor to make bail and issue civil citations instead of arrests for petty crimes. The latter would also free up police officers’ time so that they can focus on more serious offenses, which is especially important given Atlanta’s spike in violent crime.
Until the day comes that Fulton County’s jail population is adequately reduced, the city of Atlanta has a few choices. Obviously, it would be wise to continue championing smart justice reforms, but beyond this, the Atlanta city government can either passively watch as Fulton’s jail populations remain at dangerously high levels, or it can work to ease the “humanitarian” crisis in Fulton’s correctional facilities.
The city council and mayor have endorsed the latter. However, Mayor Dickens has stated that he still supports transforming the ACDC into Bottoms’ dream, but reality may have to put that on hold temporarily.
So, it would appear that the city council and mayor have chosen to work to reshape the justice system of tomorrow while easing overcrowding today—an act of cooperation between Fulton and Atlanta that could be a lesson to cities and counties across Georgia.
Marc Hyden is the director of state government affairs at the R Street Institute. You can follow him on Twitter at @marc_hyden.