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Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Activists to mayor: More jail beds and longer sentences do not make us safer

Mayor Kasim Reed, during his Jan. 6 inauguration ceremony
During his Jan. 6 inaugural speech, Mayor Kasim Reed outlined his priorities for his second and final four-year term. Chief among those, the mayor has said, is public safety. The Solutions Not Punishment Coalition, an advocacy group working toward "common sense solutions to public safety and health issues and an end to police profiling and the overuse of incarceration," took issue with his plans. This column is a collective effort by its steering committee members.

In his inaugural speech, Mayor Kasim Reed made a point to emphasize public safety as a top priority for his next term. We applaud his honest acknowledgment that incarceration is part of a "cycle that contributes to increasing unemployment, family destabilization and disruption of the economic and social fabric of our city." We support his articulation of the need for alternatives to incarceration, and a plan to address recidivism and re-entry.

But Reed went on to present his only concrete policy proposal addressing public safety, saying that Atlanta needs more jail beds and longer sentences. To justify this call for a more-of-the-same, ineffective approach, he declares that currently people are being "summarily released" from Fulton County Jail even though they have been "arrested and convicted for serious crimes 20, 30, or 40 times."

As organizations and community members who spend a great deal of time in courts, jails, and the neighborhoods most impacted by policing and prisons, we find this an absurd claim and we would challenge the mayor to find anyone who has been "summarily released" from the county jail after 40 "serious crime" felony convictions. Anyone who knows the system knows that is simply not how it works.

So what is the mayor talking about? Because we hope the mayor does his research, and didn't just make the numbers up, we wonder if maybe he has a different definition of "serious." Does it include offenses such as trespassing? Idling and loitering? Shoplifting? Panhandling?

It is true that hundreds of Atlanta's poorest residents are cycled in and out of jail, producing rap sheets longer than your arm for these kinds of "offenses" that most consider crimes of poverty, or acts of survival. It is also true that most elected officials - from President Barack Obama to Gov. Nathan Deal - have moved toward consensus that more jail beds and longer jail sentences do little more for our cities than grow the crisis of mass incarceration, destroy the fabric of communities, and increase racial economic and social disparities.

But somehow, Reed and Atlanta Police Chief Chief George Turner didn't get that memo. The truth is our jails are filled with low-level, non-violent offenders, the vast majority of whom are poor and black.

In fact, we would argue that one of the real reasons that the Fulton County jail is overcrowded is because the Atlanta Police Department works on what we consider to be a sort of quota system in which pressure is placed on police officers from on high to make arrests. This awards lazy policing, encourages profiling, and prioritizes arrests over prevention.

This cycling in and out harms individuals and communities and wastes taxpayer money. It is called "recidivism" and is precisely the problem that Reed claims to want to take 100 days to research to address.

But we don't need to wait 100 days for best practices. Organizations here in Atlanta have been offering viable proposals for close to a year, only to be ignored and put off by the mayor and Atlanta City Council.

The Solutions Not Punishment Coalition, for example, has put forth a strong proposal to create a pre-booking diversion program specifically designed to prevent having acts of survival turn into long rap sheets. The coalition, which came together in the wake of the city's misguided attempts to add banishment to the list of ineffective punishments for street level sex work, even raised funds from the Ford Foundation for the city to go and view this best practices program in Seattle. The mayor's office cancelled at the last minute and has showed zero interest in learning more.

If he's really serious about prevention and reducing recidivism, Reed can convene APD Police Chief George Turner, community members, and other stakeholders to begin designing the program next week.

There are other solutions too. Reed did the right thing in "banning the Box" for city employees in early 2013. But as 9 to 5 and the Reformed Citizens Committee have been saying for months, he could have made a big and immediate impact by ensuring that all private companies who contract with the city do the same. The city could invest in a robust jobs programs targeting our most underemployed and vulnerable communities such as trans and gender non-conforming individuals and the formerly incarcerated. Or Reed could ensure that Turner ends the practice inside the department pressuring officers to make more arrests rather and focus on policing. We could go on.

The point is that the mayor need not look far and long. He should take heed of the experts and wisdom already in our city and stop advocating for more of the same failed policies. Reed and the city need to catch up with the times and invest in new approaches and policies that are based on fact and not fiction.

This column was the collective effort of the Solutions Not Punishment Coalition's steering committee, which includes Xochitl Bervera and Troya Sampson of the Racial Action Justice Center; Dee Dee Chamblee, Simaya Fogle, and Byanca Brown of LaGender; and BT of Trans(forming).

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