What to do with Atlanta’s city jail

The news …

Late last May, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms signed legislation allowing her to close the Atlanta City Detention Center and establish a task force to study how best to re-purpose including establishing a “center of equity” in place of a public safety policy based on incarceration.

Mrs. Lance Bottoms has received push back over the initiative from political rival and two-time former mayoral candidate Mary Norwood.  Mrs. Norwood, who serves as chairman of the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods, argues that the better public safety policy would be for the city to sell the facility to Fulton County.  Such a move would help Fulton County increase its capacity for housing inmates while ensuring the city keeps offenders off the streets.

The politics of the positions ….

Mayor Lance Bottom’s office has been selling their decision to close the facility as a move toward a better policy for addressing incarceration and recidivism. Mrs. Lance Bottoms would like to see a center of equity that provides services aimed toward the incarcerated, including programs that help the formerly incarcerated find work.

In response to Mrs. Norwood’s opposition to Mrs. Lance Bottom’s plan, the Mayor’s office may be looking at Mrs. Norwood stance as posturing for another mayoral showdown in 2021 or the continuing licking of wounds from the tight November 2017 race.  The Atlanta Journal Constitution quoted the Mayor’s spokesman, Michael Smith, saying that, “There is one mayor at a time.  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.”

Could the 2021 election change community trajectory?

What I found interesting in this spat between two potential 2021 rivals was a lack of discussion on the economic and aesthetic component surrounding the Atlanta City Detention Center.  The city jail and the immediate surrounding areas are eyesores.  Jail bondsman offices and a homeless population are mainstays around the jail.  Given the proximity of the city jail to two economic initiatives designed to boost the attractiveness of downtown, a discussion as to how this facility or even a “center of equity” would be in keeping with the schemes is surprisingly lacking.

One initiative is on the way.  The Centennial Yards project, formerly known as “The Gulch”, is expected to ramp up in 2020.  The project is expected to provide a mini-city within Atlanta comprised of offices, residences, and retail space.

On the drawing boards but highly likely given its track record is Georgia State University’s vision for its downtown campus. Looking like something out of Star Trek‘s space station Yorktown, (Kelvin timeline), GSU’s plan calls for more green space, an enhanced student center, as well as more administrative office and student resident space for a growing student body population.

I just can’t see any of this taking place within an eighth of a mile of a grubby city half block that has a jail located on it.

Mrs. Norwood may be taking the middle road by advocating a mere sale of the facility to Fulton County.  As she represents an affluent investor community in Buckhead, she would probably get on board with a proposal to just remove the entire facility as a way to entice movement into a new “Gulch” community that will bring in city revenue.

And, in my opinion, to ensure that a shift in the trajectory occurs, a Buckhead community flexing its muscle may be able to pull it off.  Atlanta’s demographics are changing.  Neighborhoods like mine in the West End are gentrifying.  Any references to Atlanta as the “Chocolate City of the South” are part of an increasingly distant and cloudy memory.  The Black Slate was able to amplify support for Mayor Bottoms in 2017, but as the population continues to shrink in the face of less affordable housing, will the Black Slate be able to replicate 2017 in 2021?  If not, we may be seeing what remains of Mayor Bottoms’ social agenda being pushed further away from the city core.

Conclusion …

If Atlanta keeps in mind the economic development changes occurring downtown, I don’t see why it would keep any remnants of an incarceration policy that it finds distasteful.  If the city wants to retrain former inmates in job skills, Georgia State’s main or satellite campuses may be more than equipped with teaching and clinical expertise and classroom facilities to handle that job.  The real cost may be the political costs of implementing recommendations the Mayor’s task force comes up with for re-purposing the city’s jail.

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Author: Alton Drew

I graduated from the Florida State University with a Bachelor of Science in economics and political science (1984); a Master of Public Administration (1993); and a Juris Doctor (1999). You can follow me on Twitter @altondrew.

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