Atlanta, GA

Atlanta City Council's new initiative to reduce jail time

Gené Hunter
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(ATLANTA, Ga.) The City of Atlanta partnered with Fulton County officials to reduce jail time for nonviolent offenders.

This new partnership is a direct response to law enforcement interacting with individuals who are experiencing homelessness, mental health issues and substance abuse. Law enforcement officials will be provided with additional options to address residents who commit misdemeanor crimes and are in need of resources and professional help.

This joint initiative was introduced and adopted by the Atlanta City Council’s Public Safety and Legal Administration Committee. District 12 Councilmember Joyce Sheperd authorized the legislation on Nov. 1 and officially established the new Center for Diversion and Services to provide alternatives to jail time.

“The Center for Diversion and Services will provide the Atlanta Police Department an alternative when dealing with nonviolent and lower-level crime. It will help replace jail sentencing while getting people the proper help that they need without entering the criminal justice system,” Sheperd said in a statement.

“This is crucial legislation that I am proud to have introduced and I am grateful for the collaboration among City and County leaders to get this done.”

City officials aim to create more positive outcomes through the Center for Diversion and Services and find solutions for individuals who may need wrap-around services. Many times, these services are warranted for youth and individuals who are experiencing mental health issues.

The center’s mission is to help those charged with minor and nonviolent offenses to be treated or receive assistance rather than taking those individuals to the county jail or detention center. Oftentimes, these individuals are unable to afford bail, no matter how large or small the amount and do not have the means to get to and from court or pay any court fees associated with their offense.

The overall goal of the program is to equip officers with the knowledge and expertise to transport individuals to the new support center instead of making an arrest and reducing overcrowding at the Fulton County and city jails.

Plans for the new center include:

  • Having peer specialists to help with providing basic needs such as food and showers
  • Partner agencies to provide comprehensive services such as physical and mental health screenings, first aid, and connections to housing and health care services

Currently, Grady Memorial Hospital and the Policing Alternatives and Diversion Program (PAD) will help staff the new center. As of now, officials are estimating that up to 41 individuals could be eligible for diversion services on a daily basis.

To explore effective ways to reduce recidivism locally, Sheperd traveled with other local leaders to Houston this summer to learn about the Harris County Mental Health Jail Diversion Program and how the success of that program could be mirrored in Atlanta. The center, which was started in Harris County in September 2018, serves as a type of safety net to assist those individuals facing serious mental health issues to stay out of the criminal justice system.

Like the Houston program, the goal of the program in Atlanta would be to allow officers who might customarily arrest someone accused of a minor offense to instead take them to the new center for support. The program would also ease overcrowding by reducing the number of bookings at the Fulton County and city jails.

To start, the new center will be housed in an underutilized space away from jail operations within the Atlanta City Detention Center until a permanent location is developed.

The new diversion center is slated to open in 2022.

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