Nearly Half the People at Crowded Atlanta Jail Haven’t Been Formally Charged With a Crime, ACLU Says

Fulton County Sheriff Patrick Labat says the county needs more jail beds to fix the jail's crisis. But a new ACLU report says that significant numbers of people in the jail can be released.

Fulton County Sheriff Patrick Labat
Fulton County Sheriff's Office via Facebook

Nearly Half the People at Crowded Atlanta Jail Haven’t Been Formally Charged With a Crime, ACLU Says

Fulton County Sheriff Patrick Labat says the county needs more jail beds to fix the jail's crisis. But a new ACLU report says that significant numbers of people in the jail can be released.


Nearly half of the approximately 3,000 people sitting inside the overcrowded Fulton County Jail in Atlanta have not been formally charged with a crime, according to a new analysis by the national American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Georgia. The analysis comes as the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office has signed a contract to house up to 700 people at the Atlanta City Detention Center—but the ACLU says the data shows significant numbers of people inside the Fulton County Jail can instead be released.

The City Council should have obtained the information in the report before agreeing to lease more jail beds, Tiffany Roberts, director of the public policy unit at the Southern Center for Human Rights, said today during a press conference. The council should “course correct” and repeal the contract, she said. The Southern Center for Human Rights has filed numerous lawsuits against the sheriff over poor conditions in the county’s jails and consulted with the ACLU on the report.

“There is a better way forward that embraces not only policy changes in the criminal legal system, but also a shift in priorities, placing the care of people in crisis above scoring cheap political points for law and order rhetoric,” she said.

The ACLU analyzed the population at the facility on Sept. 14 of this year. On that day, the jail held 2,892 people—roughly 300 people more than its capacity. More than 90 percent of detainees were Black, even though Black people make up about 45 percent of the county’s population, according to the ACLU.

The ACLU found that about 45 percent of people detained at the jail had not been indicted. Georgia law requires that a person who is arrested and denied bail must either have their case heard by a grand jury within 90 days or be granted bail. (For capital offenses, prosecutors can request one 90-day extension.) A grand jury can then vote to indict or issue a “no bill,” which means the charges are dropped. If a person is held past 90 days without an indictment, the incarcerated person can petition the court to have bail set.

For people who have not yet been indicted, they can’t engage in plea negotiations, Roberts told The Appeal in a phone call after the press conference. They’re “basically in limbo and nothing else can happen.”

More than 15 percent of people detained at the jail had been held without an indictment for more than 90 days; 83 people had been detained for more than one year; and seven people had been held for over two years, according to the report.

Hundreds of people were locked up after being accused of minor offenses. More than 200 people at the jail were solely charged with misdemeanors; they were detained for an average of almost three months. Others were there because they were too poor to pay their way out. Close to 300 people were detained, sometimes for months, because they could not afford the bail set by the court, according to the ACLU.

Of those with a bail set at or below $20,000—which would mean paying at or up to $2,500 to be released—143 had been detained for more than three months; almost 90 had been held for more than six months. Forty-six people with bail at or below $20,000 had been held for more than one year and 13 people had been detained for more than two years, according to the report.

The sheriff’s office has reported that because of overcrowding, hundreds of people have been sleeping on the floor. In August, the Atlanta City Council approved an agreement with Fulton County Sheriff Patrick Labat and Fulton County to transfer up to 700 adults from the jail to the Atlanta City Detention Center, pending an analysis of the jail’s population by the Justice Policy Board, a partnership between local governmental agencies and nonprofits which is tasked with developing alternatives to incarceration for Fulton County and the City of Atlanta. The sheriff has called that study, which will be more comprehensive than the report released today and is not yet complete, a “stall tactic” that is delaying transfers, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which has reported extensively on the fight over the local jail.

“The building is deteriorating by the day,” Labat said during a recent Atlanta City Council meeting. “I’ve been sounding this alarm for 365 days if not longer.”

But local groups say to alleviate the crisis at the jail, the sheriff doesn’t need more jail beds; people must be released. Organizers have worked for years to shut down the Atlanta City Detention Center and oppose the Sheriff’s plan to transfer people from the Fulton County Jail to the facility.

In 2019, former Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms signed legislation that created a task-force to study closing the city’s jail and turning it into an “equity center” to address homelessness, mental illness, and poverty in Atlanta. But, due in part to the sheriff’s requests to use the jail, those plans have stalled, and the city has instead floated the idea of selling the mostly-empty jail to the county. The city council is now considering turning a local hospital site into an equity center in place of the jail.

The city’s process has infuriated justice reformers. On October 3, more than 60 nonprofits and civil-rights organizations sent an open letter to the Atlanta City Council and Mayor Andre Dickens warning that the city’s agreement with the sheriff would “result in more people being locked up.”

“The Fulton County Sheriff claims that additional space is needed to alleviate overcrowding in his jails,” the letter stated. “But Fulton County’s claim of overcrowding is a manufactured crisis.”

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