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Nationwide Calls For Police Reform Put New Pressure On Atlanta To Close Its City Jail

‘As long as there’s a jail, there’s going to be police trying to put our poor folks in it,’ one activist said.

Atlanta City Detention Center.Victoria Law

The recent police killing of Rayshard Brooks outside a Wendy’s in Atlanta and the growing movement to reform the city’s legal system brings heightened attention to the need to close the Atlanta City Detention Center, racial justice activists say.

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms signed legislation last year to close the 11-story jail, initially built to sweep homeless people from view during the 1996 Olympics. Since then, it’s been used primarily to detain people arrested for violating city ordinances (such as walking in the roadway or public intoxication) and minor state charges (such as driving under the influence). Between January 2018 and August 2019, driving under the influence was the third most frequent state charge given for booking people into the jail. The two most frequent were driving with a suspended license followed by driving without a license. 

As long as the jail remains open, police will continue to arrest and send people there for low-level charges, said Marilynn Winn, executive director of Women on the Rise and a co-chairperson of the city’s Reimagining ACDC Task Force. Had the jail already been shuttered, and those funds funneled into alternative programs for public intoxication, employees at Wendy’s might not have called the police; and if they had, officers may not have tried to arrest Brooks in the first place. 

“As long as there’s a jail,” Winn said, “there’s going to be police trying to put our poor folks in it and these things are going to happen.”

More than a year after Bottoms signed legislation, ACDC remains open—and largely empty. In 2019, approximately 134 of the jail’s 1,314 beds were occupied on any given night. This year, the number has dropped even more. From Jan. 1 to  May 15, fewer than 50 people were held there each night. (Numbers rose during the protests following the police-related death of George Floyd in Minneapolis—from 24 on May 1 to 137 on June 1.) 

The mayor and City Council initially allocated $18.9 million to jail operations in its 2021 budget. The majority of those funds would go toward the 232 jail employees. But public pressure following the deaths of Brooks and Floyd, including a June 10 march organized by the Community Over Cages Campaign and Women on the Rise—an organization of women who are formerly incarcerated or have been targeted by the legal system—and a June 17 die-in outside the jail, persuaded city officials to shrink that number to $3.5 million

The revised personnel budget eliminates 23 positions within the Department of Corrections, saving the city $1,029,282. It also transfers 198 full-time staff members from the budget of the Atlanta Department of Corrections to the mayor’s Office of Constituent Services.

The City Council passed its budget on Saturday, after 1,073 public comments (or 16 hours, 56 minutes and 49 seconds) followed by hours of debate among the council members. Ultimately, members voted against decreasing or withholding police funding, but approved decreased funding to the city’s Department of Corrections. The money has been reallocated, but the actual people have not. On July 1, when the new fiscal year begins, those 198 staff members, including corrections officers, technicians, food service people and nurses, will still report to the jail. The City Council must adopt a plan to permanently reassign these staff members by Nov. 2. Furthermore, the mayor’s office has not announced a date for the jail’s closure, an omission that concerns advocates and some council members. 

“We need it to happen now,” Winn said. “We need it done to save folks’ lives and we need it done so it’s not there for people to even want to use.”

Racial justice organizers have pushed the city for years to repurpose the jail and change laws that have resulted in arrests for the people detained there. The legislation signed in May 2019 created the Reimagining ACDC Task Force to explore repurposing the site as a center for equity and wellness, a hub for resources that would serve the city’s most underserved. In March, the task force issued an 17-page report of policy recommendations. 

Those recommendations included changing violations of city ordinances from criminal to civil offenses and repealing city ordinances that criminalized activities such as carrying an open container in public. The task force also called for changes to state laws that would convert traffic violations to civil, rather than jailable offenses, and decriminalizing marijuana use and possession. City officials are drafting legislation to address some of these recommendations.   

Atlanta already has one alternative to jail. The Atlanta/Fulton County Pre-Arrest Diversion Initiative (PAD) is a program for those whose arrests stem from substance use, mental illness, or extreme poverty. PAD also provides direct services, such as immediate housing (up to three months), case management, and connection to other social services that are needed. The PAD office is directly across the street from the jail, yet police have not referred many of the people they arrest. Of the 6,690 arrests during the last three months of 2019, 432 could have been diverted to PAD. (Another 127 could have been diverted had they occurred during the hours that PAD was open.) However, Atlanta police chose to divert only 24 people. All others were arrested and booked. One of the top PAD-eligible arresting charges is walking in a roadway. 

Since it began in October 2017, PAD has diverted 200 people from jail. 

A key part of closing the jail is decriminalizing many of the city ordinance violations that cause people to end up there,” PAD executive director Moki Macias, who is a member of the Reimagining ACDC Task Force, told The Appeal. “If many issues of community concern are no longer arrestable offenses, then it forces the public to have a conversation about how we can address these issues in different ways. ” 

Macias notes that changes to policing cannot separate instances of excessive use of force from the quality-of-life arrests that land people in ACDC, sometimes overnight or for two or more days. Furthermore, she said, “the way to reduce use of force is by reducing the opportunities for an interaction to go sour.” 

This involves investing in alternatives to calling 911 and having police respond. Macias points to the already-existing Georgia Crisis and Access Line, which provides intervention support by phone as well as a mobile crisis team for those who are in mental health crisis. Macias has called the crisis line both for PAD’s participants as well as in her personal life with family members and friends. “It’s a very important resource, but it’s stretched very thin,” she said.

Other cities responding to recent calls for policing reforms have been turning to solutions that don’t involve arrests, or even police, to address community concerns. In San Francisco, Mayor London Breed has announced that unarmed professionals would replace police in responding to calls involving mental health, homelessness, school discipline, and neighbor disputes. Eugene, Oregon, has had one of the nation’s longest-running programs, CAHOOTS, or Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets. Under this model, a medic and a mental health worker respond to calls for welfare checks, mental health crises, or potential overdoses. They do not wear guns or uniforms. Last year, CAHOOTS, which is run by the White Bird Clinic collective, responded to over 24,000 calls; less than 1 percent required police assistance.

That’s a model that task force member Xochitl Bervera, director of the Racial Action Justice Center, hopes that Atlanta will emulate. “Had the Wendy’s had an alternate responder to call instead of the police, that man would be alive celebrating his daughter’s birthday,” she said.  

That change might happen. At the same meeting where City Council members voted to reallocate jail funds, they also approved a $1.5 million expansion to allow PAD to expand from two districts to the entire city. Over the next three months, said Macias, PAD will also expand to address community concerns that come to them outside of the police. 

For many Atlanta residents, closing the Atlanta City Detention Center goes hand in hand with defunding the police. The 1,073 comments about the city’s proposed budget was, stated Jennifer Ide, the council’s finance chairperson, a level of “historic engagement.” The vast majority of the calls were demands to defund or decrease funding for Atlanta’s police department. Alongside many of these calls were demands to immediately close and demolish the detention center. 

“The budget passing is a step in the right direction,” Bervera said. “The City Council definitely heard—and said on the record that they heard—from many, many hundreds of people that the community wants this jail to be closed for the sake of public safety and wellness. … It encourages the mayor’s office to come back with a concrete date for closure.”