In the debate over whether the Atlanta City Detention Center should remain a jail demanded by tough-on-crime advocates or turned into a social services center proposed by Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, the chairman of the Fulton County Board of Commissioners says he has a solution: do both in the same building.

“They’re not mutually exclusive, as far as I’m concerned,” said Chairman Robb Pitts in a phone interview.

Robb Pitts.
Fulton County Chairman Robb Pitts.

“I’ve been interested in it — still am,” said Pitts. “I still think that Fulton County needs to pursue acquiring or purchasing the city jail.”

Pitts spoke the day after the fate of the city jail was discussed by the Atlanta City Council’s Public Safety and Legal Administration Committee in a Jan 21 hearing. Bottoms has made shuttering the jail, located at 254 Peachtree St. downtown, and replacing it with a “Center for Equity” with various social services a priority of her administration as a move away from mass incarceration.

The idea has been controversial, with Buckhead as a center of opposition as the neighborhood has seen crime rise in perception and reality to varying degrees. At a 2019 town hall in Buckhead, Bottoms was booed by some who thought her approach was soft on crime. She and police officials have said that critics appear to misunderstand that the city jail only houses people accused of minor crimes, not felons, and that there are more effective and equitable crimefighting strategies.

Mary Norwood, who lost the close 2017 mayoral race to Bottoms and now heads the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods, is a top advocate of keeping the jail open for city or county use and instead operating the social services center in another city-owned building nearby. The Mayor’s Office previously blasted Norwood’s position as divisive and “about an antiquated belief that locking THEM up and throwing away the key will deter crime.”

In advance of the Jan. 21 committee hearing, Norwood circulated an email urging residents comment in favor of the county taking over the jail “to keep us safer” and for the social services center to go in the nearby building.

Now Pitts, a Buckhead resident who previously served as a member and president of the City Council, is making a similar call — but for a merged facility.

Talk of Fulton County buying the jail goes back at least a decade. Pitts said he helped strike a deal with former Mayor Shirley Franklin for the county to buy the jail for roughly $40 million. But that failed a decade ago when the administration of the next mayor, Kasim Reed, sought a different and more expensive deal, Pitts said.

Pitts said the city jail is still of interest to the county “because we need additional space. And that city jail is a perfectly usable facility in much better shape than ours and it’s more centrally located than ours.” The current county jail is on Rice Street in Atlanta’s Westside.

As part of the concept of a merged jail and social services facility, Pitts said, he would propose that the county not house felons there.

The city jail, he said, is “such a nice facility, underutilized from a jail point of view. I’m aware of Mayor Bottoms vision for it and what she hopes to do, but what she hopes to do is not inconsistent [with a jail use]. …I think there’s a way for us to accommodate what she [proposes].”

The Mayor’s Office did not immediately respond to a comment request.

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.