By George Chidi, contributor
Atlanta’s city jail is a ghost town. Next door, the street in front of Garnett Station is alive.
Most of Atlanta is not dangerous. It’s hard to say that about Garnett at night, where someone can get shot while the cops are still there with the yellow tape up interviewing people about someone getting shot across the street. That’s a true story.
Last time I was there at night, I saw someone who haunts me. Aurelia was in her wheelchair, her addiction and madness in full horror show, rolling up and down the middle of Peachtree Street with her one leg. She was stopping cars in front of Magic City and the Greyhound Station to ask people for money. No one on the street bothered to intervene. Most people just drove around her. Every once in a while, one would roll a window down. Or up.
I had her arrested, once. I almost never do that. But she was really annoying people at a courthouse auction that day and when I asked her to stop, she ran me over with her chair. I suppose I took it personally.
Almost no one wants to throw panhandlers in jail. Jail is expensive. Jail makes bad problems worse. And unless you plan to keep them there at a cost to taxpayers of $30,000 a year, jail doesn’t actually deter the kind of people who panhandle hard enough to get arrested for it.
Jail sucks. But I needed to see what happens when someone tries to get a prosecutor to pay attention, and maybe get Aurelia into treatment somewhere.
I came to court at her arraignment a week or so later, only to discover that she had decided not to leave her cell that day.
“I didn’t know you get to do that,” I said in wonder. She did, of course. It was her 50th arrest.
If I’d known, I would have brought pie.
The next day she was released on time served. I found that out a week later when I saw her panhandling on the street again, despite the prosecutor’s promises to let me know. She had been offered all kinds of addiction treatment. She is in the top ten on the city’s list to get people who are homeless and mentally ill off the street. But she has to want to go, and she’s too far gone to get to yes. Why bother when you can eat the time?
I support bail reform. Because, plainly, jail wasn’t going to get her to go.
The whole catch-and-release thing leads to the creation of a permanent criminal underclass. But jailing people because they’re too poor to bond out is a moral catastrophe. A system where people with money don’t have to live by the same rules in court is not a democracy.
I’m a board member of the Pre-Arrest Diversion Initiative, which has been one of the loudest voices in the city calling for bail reform. It’s also the organization everyone involved in criminal justice reform points to as Atlanta’s answer to the carceral state.
With great ceremony and quotations of King, the city stopped requiring indigent defendants to post bond for minor crimes last February. The Atlanta City Detention Center is emptying. The city wants to sell the jail outright. The jail’s operating costs – more than $30 million a year – can be spent on other things. Yay. Go us. We rock.
But … let us examine the consequences of our newfound moral virtue for a moment.
If you were panhandled on the street at DragonCon, raise your hand.
Panhandling has been rising over the last year in Atlanta, as has the lurid splendor of our street life. One possible reason: jail has become a less attractive option for police when people commit quality-of-life crimes … because of bail reform.
The homelessness count rose this year, for the first time in about a decade. The count increased by about 150 people, which is almost exactly the number of additional people the jail held on any given night before bail reform.
The system is rotten and we all know it. As we unravel it, pulling on one string here, other parts give way. The people who advocated for bail reform – including me – made a point of telling the city council that, yes, it’s a good thing to end cash bond for petty crimes … but that the city needed to have enough social services support to accommodate a community without its most irritating members stewing in a cell for a few days a month. We needed to match the moral commitment of bail reform with more housing, and more drug treatment and more mental health support.
That didn’t happen.
Jail sucks. It does not, however, suck hard enough to keep people who probably need strong psychiatric drugs and a safe place to sleep from acting like public nuisances. Before the city ended cash bail, at least 30 percent of the city jail population had a serious and persistent psychiatric disorder. There are about five times as many people with a mental illness in jail than there are in a mental hospital in Georgia. Jail was how a lot of people were getting their psychiatric treatment. And now … they’re not. At least, not at Atlanta’s city jail.
Arrests for petty crimes still happen. Only instead of city charges, the arrests are booked as state charges, with more serious consequences. People are instead being crowded into the Fulton County jail. The Rice Street lockup is filled to bursting. It’s edging toward the conditions that led to federal oversight a decade ago. The ankle monitoring companies must be making a fortune.
In a sense, the city isn’t different from Aurelia. It expected something – a $30 million windfall for closing the jail – for nothing. The money that jail represents is coming out of the quality of life of the people of Atlanta, every time they try to walk a few blocks unmolested downtown.
The city has three choices. It can accept the status quo now, with the entire idea of decriminalization backfiring with state charges replacing city charges, turning Rice Street into a warehouse for mental illness. It can kill bail reform, as is being floated quietly in discussion. Or it can take some greater portion of the $30 million it will save from closing the city jail and use it to accommodate the increased social services burden.
The budget for the Pre-Arrest Diversion program is about $2 million a year, much of which comes from the county.
It should be $10 million.