Fulton County tries to bypass full jail overcrowding study

Fulton County Sheriff Patrick Labat is pushing back on the need to study the county’s jail population, the offenses for which detainees are booked, and the amount of time inmates are held


By Ben Brasch, J.D. Capelouto
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

ATLANTA - Fulton County elected leaders thought they had finally gotten what they wanted: 700 beds at Atlanta’s mostly empty detention center to alleviate overcrowding at the county jail.

A month after a lease was approved to unlock the additional bed space, county officials are disheartened that a move designed to slow down the process has done just that.

A Fulton County sheriff's deputy walks towards the entrance to the Fulton County Jail on Friday, Sept. 23, 2022. The county's jail facilities are severely overcrowded. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)
A Fulton County sheriff's deputy walks towards the entrance to the Fulton County Jail on Friday, Sept. 23, 2022. The county's jail facilities are severely overcrowded. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com) (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

When the Atlanta City Council approved the city’s side of the lease, included in that legislation was a last-minute amendment requiring that the Justice Policy Board analyze the county’s jail population, as well as data showing the offenses for which detainees are booked, the amount of time inmates are held there and more. The amendment stated that the lease can’t take effect until that study is complete.

That 90-day “jail population review” was not part of the original deal negotiated by Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens and Fulton County Sheriff Patrick Labat.

Now, weeks after Fulton commissioners approved the lease, Labat is pushing back on the need for the full study as suggested by the City Council’s legislation.

Labat has been trying since he was sworn in last year to move inmates into the Atlanta City Detention Center. He said the Justice Police Board doesn’t need to analyze the inmates because his team has already produced a report on the data. Labat said Wednesday that he provided the report to the commissioners.

Labat told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution after the meeting that he feels his report meets the spirit of the city legislation, adding that the document includes data on who is currently in jail.

The study mandated by the City Council, however, appears to require more than what Labat is offering. The Justice Policy Board, a group started last year by the city and county, has said its analysis would include both a point-in-time snapshot and additional historical trend data. It has chosen a sub-group to conduct the study, which it hopes to complete by early November.

Stefanie Lopez-Howard, the chair of that group, said it has received the sheriff’s data and is moving forward with its analysis.

“There are two designees from the Sheriff’s office on the committee, so they will be involved in the data retrieval, review, and analysis process,” said Lopez-Howard, the director of the Statistical Analysis Center at the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council.

Fulton leaders, meanwhile, have grown more frustrated.

“This thing has gotten out of hand,” said Fulton Commission Chair Robb Pitts. “We’re screwing around with this.”

He suggested drastic measures: “Let them tell you you can’t get in there,” Pitts told the sheriff, referencing the city’s detention center.

Fulton County Manager Dick Anderson said the Justice Policy Board is “burdened” with appeasing two governments and thus using precious time.

“It’s not in the spirit of a sense of urgency,” he said.

Commissioner Bob Ellis mentioned writing a letter to the Atlanta City Council. But that isn’t enough, said Democratic Commissioner Marvin Arrington, Jr. He said they needed to lobby the City Council, including more progressive members who pushed through the amendment.

“They didn’t want this deal to go through,” he said, adding: “They added this and they knew it would take time.”

That frustration was on display Tuesday night at a forum moderated by the Center for Civic Innovation and Atlanta Civic Circle, where Labat talked about the need for data to now slow down him moving inmates to the Atlanta jail.

“You shouldn’t have to hold hostage a program,” he told the crowd of about 35 people inside Fulton Central Library. He said he hopes the Justice Policy Board will accept his data.

“The report was the sheriff’s analysis and not raw data,” said Tiffany Roberts, public policy director for Southern Center for Human Rights, which has sued Fulton over its jails.

Pitts said during the Wednesday meeting that he had arranged a meeting for him and Labat with Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens to discuss the issue.

Atlanta City Councilman Jason Dozier, who proposed the amendment instituting the jail population study, said it’s critical for the county to allow the Justice Policy Board to complete its full analysis.

“Trust and partnership need transparency, and efforts to curtail the work of the Justice Policy Board could imperil that. If anything, this review would make the Sheriff’s job easier,” Dozier told the AJC. “It would increase efficiencies, reduce harm, and make this the collaborative cross-government partnership that we’re all aspiring towards.”

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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