The proposed transformation of the Atlanta City Jail into a social services center – a key piece of Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ agenda – should be reconsidered in favor of making it a county jail, says Mary Norwood, the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods chair and former mayoral race rival. A Mayor’s Office spokesperson blasted that idea – and Norwood’s motives — as political “self-aggrandization” and a divisive belief in “locking THEM up.”
“There is one mayor at a time,” said Mayor’s Office spokesperson Michael Smith in an email. “The people of Atlanta elected and entrusted the one they chose in 2017 to make meaningful decisions that will change the trajectory of our communities.”
In a May 30 letter to city officials, Norwood wrote in the first person about the fate of the City Jail on behalf of the BCN “and other citizens of the city of Atlanta.” The letter was on BCN letterhead and signed in her role as chair.
“There is no greater responsibility for government – at all levels – than protecting the public,” Norwood wrote. “That is why I am requesting that the City of Atlanta evaluate the transfer of the City Detention Center (City Jail) to Fulton County so that serious offenders – including repeat offenders – can be housed and not released to commit more crimes.”
The city is forming a task force to review the future of the City Jail facility. Norwood’s letter is aimed at having that body review the idea and calls for public transparency in doing so. She wrote that there is “abundant space” in other city facilities for the “laudable goal” of social programs.
She also wrote that transferring the jail to the county was considered by the prior administration of Mayor Kasim Reed, but “Mayor Reed vastly overpriced the Jail, thus, preventing the sale.”
Norwood’s proposal is based on ongoing concerns and controversies about crime in Buckhead, and particularly the release of court defendants on “signature bond” without money. However, there is dispute among various officials about whether or how much that practice affects street crime and what role the City Jail has played.
Bottoms’ proposal to largely shutter the reportedly underused jail, and her order to cease holding U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees there, drew boos at a town hall she held in Buckhead in February. However, Bottoms and Police Chief Erika Shields said that complaints appeared to misunderstand the function of the City Jail, which did not house felons on city charges, and of the ICE order, which would not free any detainees.
The BCN later circulated an anti-crime resolution calling for, among other things, the City Jail to remain open and for a reversal of Bottom’s end to cash bonds in Municipal Court. However, the BCN later withdrew the latter complaint after hearing from a member of the City Council that it applied only to petty, non-violent crimes, as Bottoms and Shields also had said at the town hall.
Smith, the Mayor’s Office spokesperson, cited a similar big-picture misunderstanding in criticizing Norwood’s proposal.
“If giving the jail away would stop crime, the mayor would sign it over today,” Smith said. “But the reality is that the revolving door in Atlanta, and America as a whole, is not about a facility. It is about an antiquated belief that locking THEM up and throwing away the key will deter crime.”
He also noted that most City Council members representing Buckhead voted in favor of the closure and transformation idea in May.
“The author’s taking of a contrary stance for self-aggrandization at the expense of other people’s very lives is beneath this city,” Smith said.
On May 28, Bottoms signed council legislation that would turn the jail into a “Center for Equity.” In a press release, she called it a “historic” piece of legislation and a key part of her agenda.
“The final closure of this Detention Center symbolizes a new era for the city of Atlanta,” Bottoms said in a press release at the time. “Transforming this space into a Center for Equity replaces city-subsidized incarceration with something more effective—equipping residents with the tools they need to succeed. Taking this critical step will both result in meaningful change for Atlanta and set a new standard for the rest of the nation.”
Since her razor-thin loss to Bottoms in the 2017 mayoral race, Norwood, a former City Council member, has reemerged politically through the BCN, which she has turned into a City Council-like body with topical committees and a practice of issuing action-oriented resolutions on hot political topics.
Among the BCN efforts under her leadership was a call for various judicial system reforms that helped to unite and invigorate various neighborhood programs, including an “adopt-a-judge” court-watching concept.
A major concern has been the release on bond of defendants with prior criminal records or who are already on bond or probation. That is the concern Norwood aimed to address with the suggestion of the City Jail remaining open as a county facility. In her letter, she says she included an attachment listing Fulton County defendants released on signature bond this year, including some charged with violent crimes. Norwood provided the Reporter with a copy of that document, which is a spreadsheet listing 324 cases.
Officials and court observers have previously said that granting of bond in some cases could be disputed and that lack of jail space is a factor in decision-making. However, two lawyers who observed Fulton County court for a day earlier this year previously told the Reporter that the judicial decisions seemed to be good.
And Chief Judge Robert C. I. McBurney of Fulton County Superior Court previously said that, while he doesn’t always agree with bail decisions, he believes judges generally do a good job of sorting the “scary” defendants from the “sick” defendants.
“What we have are folks entering the system again and again because we aren’t treating the underlying causes,” McBurney told the Reporter previously. “It requires a community investment to address some of those situations.”
Update: This story has been updated with information about the signature bond document included with Norwood’s letter. This version also corrects a typographical error that misstated “city jail” instead of “county jail” as the proposal for consideration.