Feb 10, 2022 - News

Atlanta aims to convert jail into diversion center

A man walks in a bright and empty cell block in the Atlanta city jail

Thomas Wheatley/Axios

The effort to convert Downtown’s nearly empty city jail into a diversion center for people experiencing mental illness, homelessness or substance abuse took a leap forward on Monday.

Why it matters: Aimed at addressing the root causes of some crimes, the center could help ease crowding at the Fulton County jail, address recidivism and put people on the path to living a healthy and more productive life.

  • The effort, started under former Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, has support from a diverse group of public officials, judges and mental health and social justice advocates.

Details: On Monday, the Atlanta City Council advanced legislation that creates the legal groundwork needed to convert the monolith overlooking South Downtown into a 24-hour facility where police could bring non-violent offenders who opt to receive mental health counseling, treatment or other assistance instead of going to jail.

  • The city and county will split the cost of operating the center once it opens.

The facility, the city said in a statement, will include “peer reception, behavioral health screenings, non-emergency medical care, sobering rooms, case management, warrant resolution and food, laundry and showers.”

Catch up quick: Not long after taking office in 2018, Bottoms announced that the city would close the jail. What would happen to the building afterward, however, was a question.

A task force brainstormed options, including a community center, transitional housing or even demolition. Today the jail uses a fraction of its space.

What they’re saying: Moki Macias, the executive director of the Atlanta Policing Alternatives and Diversion Initiative, tells Axios Atlanta that even a conservative estimate of diverting 40 people a day from the jail and into the services they need could have a substantial effect.

  • In October, Fulton County Superior Court Chief Judge Robert McBurney told Fulton commissioners the center could divert more than 10,000 bookings every year from the city and county jail and greatly ease the strain on Grady’s emergency room, the AJC reported.

Yes, but: Macias says the center is but one part of a larger system that must be built, funded and maintained. “We need to invest in the whole continuum of resources” — meaning high-quality and accessible healthcare, housing and recovery options — “that people need to be more well,” she says.

The intrigue: Some Fulton officials, including Sheriff Patrick Labat and District Attorney Fani Willis, have called for the facility to continue serving as a jail, especially when the county lockup is pushed to capacity.

  • A spokesperson for Labat tells Axios that the sheriff’s office has no comment. A spokesperson for Willis did not respond to a request for comment.
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