Jail Deaths Have Spiked, But Atlanta’s Diversion Program May Lose Funding

Deaths at the Fulton County Jail have quadrupled compared to last year. Despite this, county commissioners are threatening to cut funding to one of the Atlanta area’s main pre-arrest diversion initiatives.

Fulton County Sheriff Patrick Labat stands at a lectern giving a speech
Fulton County Sheriff Patrick Labat
Fulton County Sheriff's Office

Jail Deaths Have Spiked, But Atlanta’s Diversion Program May Lose Funding

Deaths at the Fulton County Jail have quadrupled compared to last year. Despite this, county commissioners are threatening to cut funding to one of the Atlanta area’s main pre-arrest diversion initiatives.

So far this year, 14 people detained by the Fulton County Sheriff have died, either at a nearby hospital or at one of the county’s jails. That number is more than four times the amount of people who died in custody all of last year, the sheriff’s office told The Appeal via email. 

The first person to die this year was a 32-year-old veteran. In January, he had been detained for less than a week when he died by what appears to be suicide at the Fulton County Jail, according to jail incident reports obtained by The Appeal. 

Records from the sheriff’s department show an increasingly quickening pace of deaths. Most of the year’s deaths—11—have occurred in the last four months. Four deaths occurred in November, the deadliest month to date. 

All fourteen people were Black, according to jail records. More than half were detained at the county’s largest lock-up, the Fulton County Jail. 

Amelia Joiner, chief counsel to Fulton County Sheriff Patrick Labat, wrote in an email to The Appeal that “as these custodial deaths are still under investigation, no further information or statements will be made available regarding these matters at this time.” She added that detainees are entering the jail in worse health than in decades past and that they “are using the crumbling facility to create dangerous weapons.” However, only three of the deaths were suspected or confirmed homicides.

Local criminal justice reform advocates say the rising death count underscores the urgent need to release hundreds of people and invest in programs that keep people out of jail. But the county seems to be moving in the opposite direction. This summer, the city of Atlanta, the sheriff’s office, and the County entered into an agreement to transfer up to 700 people from the overcrowded Fulton County Jail to the Atlanta City Detention Center. 

And now, County commissioners are threatening to defund the Policing Alternatives & Diversion Initiative (PAD), a joint initiative between multiple Atlanta-area governments, in retaliation for the group’s public opposition to the jail expansion, Moki Macias, the group’s director, told The Appeal. The commissioners will hold a public hearing on the county’s proposed 2023 fiscal year budget at their 10 a.m. meeting today, and will vote on the budget next month.

“The commissioners would not be talking about removing funding from PAD if we had not publicly said that we didn’t think expanding the jail was the best solution,” said Macias. 

Commissioner Marvin Arrington confirmed as much in a phone interview with The Appeal. Arrington, a long-time PAD supporter who helped bring the program to Atlanta, said he would not vote to eliminate their funding, but understood his colleagues’ frustrations with the group. 

“We are funding PAD and then our sheriff is telling us that he needs the Atlanta jail,” said Arrington. “And [PAD is] fighting us on that. I don’t think anybody wants to get rid of PAD funding, but it’s fair game for discussion.”

His recommendation to the group, he told The Appeal, is that they “not bite the hand that’s feeding them.” 

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Instead of arresting a person and taking them to jail, multiple Atlanta-area police departments can divert people accused of certain crimes related to substance abuse, extreme poverty, and mental illness to PAD. If the person agrees to partner with PAD, PAD works to connect them with services and, if necessary, housing. Prosecutors can also refer people to PAD. If a judge agrees, this results in the person’s release from jail.  

PAD’s $7.8 million budget comes from both private and public sources, according to a budget document the group shared with The Appeal. Fulton County provides PAD with $400,000 to help participants meet their most immediate needs, including obtaining food, clothing, transit passes, identification, and shelter. The city of Atlanta provides more than half of the group’s funding. (The Atlanta Police Department, just one of the multiple departments that refers people to PAD, had a $276 million budget in the 2022 fiscal year.

“When people have a history of cycling through our local jails because of behavioral health concerns or poverty, then the things that keep them out of jail when they are referred to us are exactly the things that Fulton County pays for,” Macias said. “It is making sure they have a place to sleep. It is making sure that they have food to eat so they don’t have to shoplift it.” 

But despite the ongoing human rights crisis at the jail, several commissioners suggested eliminating the County’s share of the group’s funding at their most recent meeting and questioned the group’s transparency and efficacy. PAD, however, publishes monthly and annual reports on its website

From the start of this year through October, police officers diverted 120 people to the group who would have otherwise been held at the Fulton County Jail, saving the County an estimated $520,000 in what it would have cost to detain them, according to a report released by PAD this week. If each of the 120 had been arrested, most would have been charged with trespassing. In total, law-enforcement diverted people to PAD 295 times during that same time period, according to the most recent monthly PAD report available online.

Of the 26 participants referred by law enforcement in October—the most recent month for which a report is available online— PAD secured emergency housing for 21 of them. 

Instead of increasing the number of jail beds, PAD and other groups say many people could be safely released. Around 4,200 people booked in the Fulton County Jail from January to October were charged with misdemeanors as their most serious charge, according to a study ordered by county and city officials as part of the agreement to lease additional jail beds. Over 3,400 people were charged with offenses eligible for diversion. 

While numerous police departments exist in Fulton county, just three—those for the city of Atlanta, the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA), and Georgia Tech university—can currently refer people to PAD directly. Between January and October of this year, the Atlanta police department alone could have diverted more than 650 people to PAD instead of booking them into the jail, according to the report PAD released this week. 

For people arrested outside of PAD’s business hours, local prosecutors can divert them after they are booked into the jail. But from January to October, the Fulton County District Attorney and city solicitor diverted no cases to PAD, and the county solicitor diverted one, according to Macias. 

“If the police department and the solicitor and the prosecutors for both the city and the county were diverting more people to us then we would not have the kind of overcrowding problem that we have,” said Macias. 

More diversions may have also meant fewer deaths. One man in the jail’s mental health unit died in a suspected homicide, for instance. He had been held for just over two months on charges of loitering and a misdemeanor charge of obstructing law enforcement. 

So far, three people from the jail’s mental health unit have died this year, according to incident reports. As The Appeal previously reported, the jail’s medical provider documented that in September people in the unit were living in deplorable conditions. Most were severely malnourished, and all had scabies or lice—or sometimes both.  

With their clients’ lives at risk, Macias says potential funding cuts won’t dissuade the group from speaking out. PAD is encouraging its supporters to attend today’s meeting where the proposed county budget will be discussed. Commissioners are expected to vote on the budget next month. 

“I wholeheartedly reject the idea that somehow we should not be advocating and weighing in on the decisions that we’re making about incarceration,” she said. “We are never going to not advocate, especially for the people who are struggling with mental health and are struggling with substance use or are simply trying to survive on the street, and instead are wasting away in that jail.”

Clarification: This piece has been updated to reflect the total number of people law enforcement referred to PAD from January to October 2022.

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