The Atlanta Objective: A Prison of Bad Policy Choices

After about six hours of public comment, the Atlanta City Council will break its promises on policing reform today.

[NOTE: This post has been edited to reflect the comments of Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms in opposition to this legislation.]

A year ago, Atlantans smashed windows and barbecued police cars because the criminal justice system abused the poor and people of color. The entire political edifice of the region pivoted toward expressions of empathy with that justifiable outrage. Promises were made. Democratic politicians harnessed that anger and channeled it into the first electoral victory for the left here in a generation.

Tomorrow, Atlanta will confess the left’s failure to deliver on those promises.

I don’t write that to stake out some hyper-progressive position on selling the Atlanta City Detention Center to Fulton County, which is what the city council will vote on tomorrow. The jail is a $35 million a year civic albatross that might house all of 40 prisoners on a good day. The move makes sense from a fiscal and operational perspective. The county jail is overcrowded, the city jail has capacity. Boom.

Technically, the vote today isn’t to sell the jail, but to create a task force to work with the county on overcrowding at the county jail. In practice, it is a step away from closing the jail and toward selling it. The thing is, selling the jail – at least to someone who plans to use it as a jail – should be a bad idea, because the city should have had less need for detention space, because social and economic and judicial policies should have continued to reduce crime.

By giving the jail to the county, Atlanta makes a policy statement: its plans to reduce crime didn’t work and probably aren’t going to work.

The question is whether Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ opposition to this resolution will be enough to derail it.

There are apparently six hours of public comments awaiting the council when they meet today, in a shade of last summer, when days of public commentary poured in about a proposal to shift funding from the police to social services. The council ultimately refrained. Every councilperson knows their seat is on the line this year because of crime.

We shouldn’t be in this position. But here we are.

Language in the resolution talks about “restorative justice and social change resulting in enhanced public safety.” It promises the exploration of “expansion of wrap around services for pretrial detainees.”

But the opposition to closing the jail has been led by Michael Julian Bond, a Black councilman elected at large who needs the support of white Buckhead voters to fend off a serious progressive challenge. Bond believes his political future requires being “tough on crime,” and this effort is how he will make that argument.

The resolution he authored directly ties the rise of crime to the creation of a joint city-county committee looking at a potential lease or sale of the city jail to Fulton County. “[C]rime overall in the City has increased and this has led to a severe overcrowding in the Fulton County Jail,” the resolution says.

Well. Yes. And no. That’s not exactly true.

Over the last few years, Atlanta de-criminalized marijuana possession, reformed a bail system that effectively made being poor a jailing offense and established a pre-arrest diversion system to keep people with persistent mental illnesses out of the jail.

None of it addressed the reasons people turn to crime in the first place: untreated mental illness and drug dependency, long-term unemployment, adversarial relationships between cops and the community, lead exposure and economic inequality. And none of it got at the neighborhood and commercial pressures on police to manage crime with arrests.

After the city decriminalized marijuana, cops began levying more serious state charges for possession, just to make the arrest. A state charge requires detention at the county jail. The Fulton County jail population had been growing before the pandemic even as crime had been falling.

At the start of the pandemic, pre-arrest diversion halted diversions reported in weekly statistics dropped to zero starting on March 15 and did not resume until November.

“During the height of the pandemic we saw three things,” said Moki Macias, Executive Director of the Policing Alternatives & Diversion Initiative. “One, it is absolutely possible to stop arresting and jailing people for minor violations; two, that our systems of care can pivot and make tremendous progress to house people as well as provide for other needs that drive many of these type of crimes ( see Partners for HOME massive housing surge), and three: a time of community-wide trauma, grief and economic, political and social stress coincided-- not at all surprisingly in fact -- with more interpersonal violence and killings. These are all reasons to stay the course and to invest more in communities.”

Bail reform is probably going away too. After the city ended cash bail for minor crimes in 2018, the failure to appear rate for court about doubled.

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms signed a resolution to close the jail about two years ago, amid much fanfare.

“We aren’t talking about violent offenders, we aren’t’ talking about people who have been felonies,” she said in 2019. “These are people who have been arrested for quality of life offenses.”

The mayor reiterated her interest in closing the jail only weeks ago, in her state of the city address. "This nearly 500,000-square-foot, 17-story-building holds approximately 30 people a night. Reimagining a different use for this facility is a good financial move for the city, but it will also help us tackle issues like homelessness, addiction and mental health, ultimately making our city safer and our communities stronger."

Friday, she doubled down. “Another Task Force is not the solution and I do not support the referenced legislation,” she wrote in response to business leaders calling for the sale. She called on Fulton County to “join the City of Atlanta by signing the letter of intent that we have provided to them that moves forward with a partnership to utilize the Atlanta City Detention Center for diversion, reentry, and other programs and services.”

“While the easy thing to do is to blame the homeless and those who are poor for the challenges we are facing in our city, including violent crime, it is not acceptable,” she said. “We must ground ourselves in the data and in an understanding of who is committing violent crime and what the real solutions are to those problems. We must also understand that we cannot continue to support a cycle of incarceration for the homeless and poor. These challenges must be addressed with different solutions.”

This is an election year for city government and violent crime has skyrocketed. As of April 10, Atlanta’s year-over-year homicide rate has increased 91 percent. Crime rises and falls, but this kind of spike is utterly unheard of.

When compared to the increase in aggravated assault of 25 percent, a serious and shocking question arises. The homicide rate and aggravated assault rate should rise and fall in tandem. People don’t just get 66 percent better at killing each other overnight. It strongly implies not just a rise in violence, but increasingly the intent to kill. This is a sociological nightmare, a statistical outlier and the primary subject of this newsletter.

I wanted this jail closure to happen.

This newsletter launched in April instead of February because I found myself in the finals for a fellowship to work with the city as a consultant on plans to close this jail. It was a one-year, $80,000 job that would have started ... oh, next Monday. I bailed out of consideration last month, because I saw this coming.

I don’t mind fighting a losing battle. I do object to being set up to fail.

In a country that treated crime rationally, we would be looking intensely for the reasons behind the explosive violence – real reasons with actual evidence, not thumbnail guesses based on our personal biases – and then drive resources toward the actual causes.

Last year, as I walked back to my car from the burning Wendy’s on University Avenue two weeks after the George Floyd video drove people into the street and a day after Atlanta cops killed Rayshard Brooks, I stopped to talk to an APD major I knew. The chief of police – a notable reformer – had just resigned. I just looked at him and said, “Now? This had to happen now?” A week later the cops basically went on strike.

Even before the pandemic, Atlanta had the highest economic inequality in America. Its police department flushed a once-solid relationship with the public last year almost exactly at the peak of the public’s skepticism with policing. It would be reasonable look at how those connect, to start.

But we’re not rational about crime. Our lizard amygdalas won’t permit it. And almost anyone who has managed to hold on to elected office for any period of time has this carved on a granite plaque in the space where their soul used to be.