There oughta be a law

Andre Dickens is the dynamic, results-oriented young mayor of Atlanta, Georgia’s capital city and the largest of 15 municipalities in Fulton County, stretching 100 miles from the cities of South Fulton and Chattahoochee Hills to Milton and Crabapple. 

Pat Labat is an experienced law enforcement leader and veteran, serving as Fulton’s sheriff, and chief law enforcement officer. Labat is also trying to divine a path to help keep the county safer, while humanely treating the detainees and occasional state inmates in the care of his office and detained in the Fulton County Jail, among a myriad of other responsibilities of that office.

 On Aug 1, Dickens and Labat reached an agreement in principle to house up to 700 Fulton Jail detainees, with nearly 400 currently sleeping on the floor in the over-crowded Fulton County Jail, within the largely shuttered, but fully paid-for and operational Atlanta Detention Center, just down the street. Labat had previously served as chief of the Atlanta Department of Corrections, running that facility, and managing its staff and $30-million budget for more than a decade. We are now close to November, and only a handful of Fulton detainees have been actually transferred to the old Atlanta Jail.

 Former Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and the city council of that time, closed Atlanta’s detention center with discussions, never fully realized, to convert the facility into some sort of center of restorative justice, or more recently the first two floors into a diversion center for nonviolent offenders. And another more recent proposal would level the city jail, build a park and memorial and create an Atlanta Centre for Equity, including an urban farm, and seed bank.

 But back to Atlanta’s mayor and the sheriff, trying to deal with the crisis at hand. Labat inherited a troubled and poorly engineered jail where the detainees can easily pick the locks, and security is a constant challenge. The Fulton jail annexes in the north and south of Fulton County are currently closed for unrelated issues, while undergoing renovation and repairs and further reducing capacity.

 “I am moving in a space where people’s lives are in danger. Since we met last, we had someone openly murdered in our facility,” Labat shared recently with Atlanta City Council.

 Former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed pointed out during the last mayoral debate of the previous campaign, that there were then more than 600 detainees in the Fulton jail who had each been arrested and charged more than 25-30 times who were continually being released back onto the streets of Atlanta to re-offend. Reed suggested simply keeping the bad guys (those repeat offenders) locked up at least while awaiting trial in the Atlanta’s closed jail.

 Bottoms and the city council of her day also largely ended cash bail. Atlanta City Councils since, in one way or another, have delayed or blocked the use of the Atlanta jail. Dickens has made public safety his top priority, opened new police precincts and mini-precincts, and supports the new training center which should help take public safety, police, fire, and EMT services in Atlanta to the next level. But when folks break the law, particularly with felony offenses, there needs to be a safe and secure facility to detain them while awaiting their trial. Such a facility should be safe and secure for the inmates, as well as their jailers.

 I have no ill will against the Atlanta City Council, it has many fine members and longtime public servants, but they are playing with people’s lives while playing politics with the issue of racial justice. Yes, there are detainees who may be better served by diversion, but until those programs are available or better staffed, there are hundreds sleeping on cold floors, the same poor folks, mostly of color, who they claim to want to later serve in a center for equity. As the cold of winter approaches, the old saw for some homeless is that time in jail does at least supply three hots (meals) and a cot. Not in Fulton County, Georgia.

 Perhaps until the city council can allow logical and more humane options available to be exercised, we need an ordinance requiring a work/release program for members of the council, perhaps even requiring a weekend in the Fulton County Jail. A little ice-cold dose of reality might wake up a few folks before it’s too late for many in the jail, as well as those who work there serving and protecting the citizens of Fulton County.

Bill Crane is political analyst and commentator in metro Atlanta, as well as a columnist for The Champion, DeKalb Free Press and Georgia Trend. Crane is a DeKalb native and business owner, living in Scottdale. You can contact him or comment on a column at bill.csicrane@gmail.com.

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