Oct 19, 2021 - News

The city jail's next chapter becomes more clear

A city jail employee walks in the empty open-plan floor with individual cells along the side of the room.

Photo: Thomas Wheatley/Axios

Atlanta’s nearly empty Detention Center could become a place where people living with substance abuse, mental health or homelessness issues can find help and avoid jail under a proposal from Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms.

Why it matters: The year before the pandemic and protests over police killings and systemic racism, Bottoms announced the city would close the Atlanta City Detention Center.

  • The city convened a task force that spent months contemplating the facility’s future, and explored razing it to build housing, transforming it into a community center and other uses. Fulton County officials showed interest in using space to reduce overcrowding at its jail.

Details: According to a draft of the proposal obtained by Axios, the city would partner with the Policing Alternatives and Diversion Initiative, the nonprofit that helps people avoid arrest for low-level offenses and then helps them find services like counseling, housing and job placement.

Fulton County and and Grady Memorial Hospital would also be partners.

  • The revamped center will help people navigate services, receive nonemergency medical care, rest in sobering rooms and find help with case management and basic legal issues, plus food, laundry and showers among other resources.
  • The cost to retrofit parts of the jail for the prearrest diversion center would be roughly $3 million. Annual operating costs would run just over $2.5 million, and would be matched by Fulton County.
  • The diversion program could reduce the number of booking at the Fulton and city jails by more than 10,000, the AJC recently reported, citing an analysis by Fulton Judge Robert McBurney.

Moki Macias, the executive director of PAD, tells Axios that the sobering room could be up and running by the beginning of next year and the diversion center could come online by next summer.

  • How much of the jail will be devoted to the diversion center, a years-in-the-making effort by PAD, is undecided, Macias says.

What they’re saying: In a tweet, Bottoms said the proposal was “another step toward thoughtful criminal justice.” A spokesperson for Fulton County Sheriff Patrick Labat said the office hadn’t seen a copy of the legislation and could not comment.

  • Says Macias: “The way you address public safety concerns is by having more options for people. This takes us to a whole other level of options for people who might otherwise have ended up jailed rather than receiving services.”

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