A Call to Action from Executive Director Sara Totonchi Before Super Bowl LIII

Next week, Atlanta will host the Super Bowl.  This will be one of the largest sporting events in the city’s history, aside from the 1996 Olympic Games. The challenge presented by these major events remains the same: how will the Gate City treat its most vulnerable populations as we welcome the world?

The Atlanta City Detention Center stands as one of the most troubling monuments of the 1996 Olympic Games. The jail was built to warehouse people the city wished to hide from global view: those visibly struggling with homelessness and poverty. As a testament to that fact, the jail population increased from 2,200 to 4,500 during the Games, all while street homelessness appeared virtually nonexistent to visitors. (For the visibly poor and homeless who weren’t taken to jail, the city was accused of distributing free one-way bus tickets for individuals, under the condition that they never returned to the city.)

Today, thanks to improved immigration policy, historic bail reform and pre-arrest diversion legislation, the jail’s population hovers at under 100 people.  Unfortunately, due in part to the City’s support of the forced closure of Metro Atlanta Taskforce for the Homeless’ Peachtree-Pine shelter, street homelessness increased nearly ten percent between 2017 and 2018.  Partners for Home reported that in 2018, 3076 people were homeless in Atlanta, 740 of whom were unsheltered.  There is no question that both the city and non-profits lack adequate bed space for the current homeless population.

Last week, the City announced that it was moving forward with removing homeless ‘camps,’ in an effort to find permanent housing solutions for the city’s homeless population. The City maintains that the timing—just weeks before the big game—was purely coincidental. But Leroy Thomas, a man who has been sleeping under the downtown connector, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that police clearly expressed that people sleeping under the Downtown Connector would need to be gone by a date certain, due to the Super Bowl.  APD spokesman Carlos Campos provided that Atlanta police arrested roughly 40 people for urban camping over the past 24 months. Campos told journalists on a call last week, “If they are violating a law, they will be arrested for violating a law…There are laws that are applicable to everybody and it doesn’t matter what your residential status is.”

While the lack of available shelter space is nothing new, the City’s  destruction of homeless camps, destruction of homeless individuals’ belongings, and increasing arrests and threats of arrest of individuals for urban camping and other status offenses as the Super Bowl approaches strongly suggests an intent to sanitize the image of downtown at the expense of our homeless citizens.

Criminalizing homelessness and poverty violates our most basic human rights, and it sets in action a revolving door: people sent to jail for sleeping on the street and other status-based charges (trespass, soliciting money, urinating in public, etc.) are more likely to experience homelessness again once released. Performing daily, life-sustaining activities such as crossing the street, finding relief without indoor plumbing and asking passersby for money can be enough to land people behind bars for months and in extreme cases, a year or more.  Law enforcement must utilize resources such as pre-arrest diversion and crisis intervention when making contact with people obviously in need of assistance. Jail administrators must adhere to the requirements outlined in bail reform legislation mandating that people arrested for most non-violent charges be released on their own recognizance.  Atlanta judges must honor the constitutional mandate that they not assess bail or fines at rates accused persons cannot afford.

We need your help to hold Atlanta accountable to vulnerable populations during the Super Bowl.

First, we ask you to support a collaborative effort to observe municipal court proceedings January 31-February 5 at 8:00 AM. Sign up to help here.

Second, we encourage you to contact Mayor Bottoms and your City Councilpersons in support of:

  • Warming shelters remaining open for the duration of the Super Bowl;
  • A directive to law enforcement officers to de-prioritize quality of life arrests and prioritize crisis intervention and direct service referrals;
  • A directive to law enforcement officers to use pre-arrest diversion as often as possible; and
  • A commitment from the City of Atlanta Solicitor General to encourage pre-booking diversion for people brought to the jail for minor offenses.

Sample Script: Hello, my name is [YOUR NAME] and I [LIVE/WORK/WORSHIP] in Atlanta.  I am concerned that homeless and visibly poor people will be displaced and arrested in preparation for the Super Bowl.  I am part of a larger community that supports a more humane and moral approach to the issues of poverty and homelessness and ask that instead of increasing arrests, the city (1) keep its warming shelters open for the duration of Super Bowl events; (2) encourage law enforcement officers to refer persons in need to the Pre-Arrest Diversion program or other direct service providers; (3) encourage the Atlanta Solicitor General to support pre-booking diversion; (4) require that jail administrators closely adhere to the bail reform ordinance passed  unanimously by City Council in 2018; and (5) require  judges to honor the Constitution by not assessing fines, fees and bail that accused people cannot afford.  Thank you.

 

 

Legislative Updates

Today is the fifth day of the 2019 Legislative session, and things are in full swing.  As we reported last week, there were a lot of changes to the Georgia General Assembly in the last election. While we don’t know how the new administration will respond to our demand for continued criminal justice reform yet, we do have some exciting updates to share with you.

Legislative Updates

It is still very early in the session, but we are already tracking the following bills that will impact the state’s criminal legal system:

HB 20 – prohibits persons convicted of family violence offenses from possessing or carry firearms

SB 15 – “Keeping Georgia’s Schools Safe” – proposing recommendations from the report by the Senate School Safety Study Committee

SB 23 – prohibits the movement of trailers and semitrailers on highways, unless transporting people or property

SB 25 – clarifies the law on overtaking a school bus by specifically allowing drivers to pass when there is a median, unpaved area or physical barrier

SCHR will provide updates on these and all other bills introduced this legislative session related to criminal justice reform.

Advocacy for Criminal Justice Reform in 2019

The Justice Reform Partnership (JRP), led by SCHR, continues to grow around the state, and partners will work together this session to ensure criminal justice reform is a priority in 2019. Along with the annual Justice Day at the Capitol on February 26th, JRP will also host an eight-week series at the capitol called Talk Justice Tuesdays (TJT) in which partners will focus on specific issues and opportunities for reform this session.

Last Tuesday, SCHR hosted the first TJT – The Road to Criminal Justice Reform in 2019. More than 30 people attended, and the group discussed expectations for criminal justice reform in 2019, important legislative committee assignments, and identified the issues we expect will be considered this year: mental health, bail, dignity for incarcerated women, solitary confinement, expungement, and voting rights.

There will be several other chances to come to the capitol to discuss important criminal justice issues and push for real reforms that will benefit all Georgians. You can find the full schedule for the remaining here: www.JusticeDay365.com.

The 2019 Legislative Session has Begun

On Monday, the 2019 Legislative Session began with the swearing in of Governor Brian Kemp, Lieutenant Governor Geoff Duncan, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, lawmakers, and other state elected officials. There are a lot of new faces at the Capitol, and a seemingly palpable recognition that there has been a shift in political power. Though the Senate and the House are still overwhelmingly led by Republicans, the Democrats gained thirteen seats in the last election, and now have a significant majority in the Fulton County delegation. Typically, lawmakers are more willing to pass the new Governor’s agenda in his first legislative session, in order to establish a mutually beneficial relationship that allows both branches to more easily create and enforce the laws they want. At this point, we are unsure of what will happen with criminal justice reform in the next forty legislative days, but we are expecting a longer than usual session because of the semi-late start, the upcoming MLK holiday, and the impending Super Bowl that will be held in Atlanta at the beginning of February.

While Governor Kemp repeatedly said he supported the reforms passed by his predecessor, Governor Nathan Deal, he has yet to adopt any of the specific reforms recommended by Deal’s Council on Criminal Justice Reform in his policy agenda. The Council made clear in its final report that there is still work to be done, and asked lawmakers in 2019 (and beyond) to consider finding ways to assess and collect fines and fees in a way that ensures that vulnerable communities are not disproportionately impacted, improving access and quality of mental health treatment so that people who need help are not put in jail, and changing the use of harsh and ineffective mandatory minimum prison sentences. The only criminal justice issues that Kemp has committed to so far has been to aggressively prosecute gang activity, immigration violations, and sex trafficking. None of these policies would improve public safety nor spend taxpayer dollars wisely. For example, Kemp has said he wants to see the creation of a gang database, in order to track and monitor everyone believed to be involved in gang activity. The research makes clear, however, that these databases do not keep people safe; instead, they unfairly target racial minorities and waste of resources that could more appropriately be spent on improving public schools, expanding affordable housing, and increasing the opportunities for economic mobility.

SCHR is ready to respond to any legislation introduced this session that would result in policies that advance racial injustice, criminalize poverty, endorse the death penalty, or weaken the state’s public defender system. Despite the concern with Kemp’s criminal justice priorities, SCHR is working with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to create the mental health study committee recommended by the Council on Criminal Justice Reform. We also are working with Republicans and Democrats to pass legislation to improve jail and prison conditions for women, address the inhumane use of solitary confinement, and tackle sentencing disparities.

Community engagement during this session will be critical to the success of reforms that will improve the lives of Georgians impacted by the criminal legal system. To that end, there will be several advocacy opportunities for people interested in criminal justice reform during the 2019 session. The Justice Reform Partnership, the SCHR-led coalition of nearly eighty organizations committed to criminal justice reform, will host eight advocacy days at the Capitol this session. These days, titled Talk Justice Tuesdays, will be held every Tuesday beginning on January 22nd through March 19th, which will include the annual Justice Day at the Capitol on February 26th. Each Tuesday, JRP organizations will focus on an aspect of the system and engage interested individuals by offering information and opportunities to advocate for specific policy reforms. Topics for Talk Justice Tuesdays include expungement, conditions for incarcerated women, the impact on children and families, and access to housing. Additional information about Talk Justice Tuesdays and Justice Day at the Capitol can be found at www.JusticeDay365.com.

Georgia Prisoners Reach Settlement to Reform One of the “Harshest and Most Draconian” Solitary Confinement Units in the Nation

The Southern Center for Human Rights and Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton, LLP, have reached a settlement with the Georgia Department of Corrections in Gumm v. Sellers, a case challenging solitary confinement in Georgia’s Special Management Unit (SMU). Plaintiff Timothy Gumm was held in the SMU for 7.5 years.  Plaintiff Robert Watkins is now in his tenth year of confinement in the unit.

Conditions in the SMU Before Litigation

Built in 2007, the SMU was designed to isolate people in an extremely harsh form of solitary confinement.  Those assigned to the unit were locked inside specially equipped, parking-space sized cells that deprived them of normal communication and socialization with others.  For many years, the Georgia Department of Corrections placed no fixed limits on who could be confined to the unit, what conditions they would endure while there, or how long they would be subjected to those conditions.

By 2017, the unit had deteriorated to the point where people were being confined to isolation cells for nearly 24 hours per day on average, unable even to see out of a window or interact normally with another person.  A number of them stayed in these cells literally around the clock for months at a time.  Research shows that isolation of this kind for even a few days can produce a range of harmful effects, but Georgia placed people in these conditions for years with no clear pathway out.  People frequently were forced to restart the program from the beginning.  Many were able to leave the unit only after completing their prison sentences and being released to society.

Nearly half of those assigned to the unit had documented mental disorders requiring treatment, and they frequently resorted to extreme measures to cope with the stress of isolation, including cutting themselves, swallowing harmful objects or pills, banging their heads against the wall, and smearing feces on their cells and bodies.  Two men committed suicide in the SMU in 2017.

After touring the unit in October 2017 and speaking with the people confined there, nationally renowned psychologist Dr. Craig Haney authored an expert report observing that some of those he spoke with “were among the most psychologically traumatized persons I have ever assessed in this context.”  Dr. Haney’s report identified numerous problems that made the SMU “one of the harshest and most draconian” facilities in the country and placed people housed there “at significant risk of very serious psychological harm.”

“Dr. Haney’s report was a watershed moment that caused the Department to reexamine its philosophy around solitary confinement,” said SCHR attorney Sarah Geraghty.  “A civilized society doesn’t lock people in isolation cells for years on end.  It was past time to move out of the dark ages.”

Settlement Terms & Reforms Going Forward

In December 2017, the parties reached a settlement agreement concerning conditions and procedures in the SMU.

The settlement terms provide that:

  • Every person held in the SMU must be allowed at least 4 hours per day out of their cells except on weekends and holidays. People will no longer have out-of-cell time denied as a punishment except for short periods following serious misconduct.
  • Except in narrowly defined circumstances, assignment to the SMU cannot exceed 24 months. Any prisoner held for longer than two years will be reviewed quarterly by a special panel composed of senior security, legal, and mental health professionals.
  • People may qualify for transfer from the SMU as soon as 13 months after assignment and may not be arbitrarily moved backward in the program.
  • Everyone in the SMU is assigned a computer tablet equipped with educational programs, email capability, music, and other media.
  • People are also permitted library access and the opportunity to participate in at least 120 minutes per week of out-of-cell programming or classes.
  • The criteria for assignment to the SMU will be modified to limit those who may be placed in the unit.
  • Before assignment to the SMU, and in conjunction with every 60-day or 90-day review hearing, people will receive an out-of-cell mental health evaluation performed by a licensed mental health provider. If the provider finds that someone is decompensating or is likely to decompensate, they will be transferred to an appropriate treatment facility.

The SMU’s population has decreased significantly due to the recent reforms.  In October 2017, the population was 180.  Today it is about 100.

“This settlement has provided and will continue to provide critical relief to the people who have experienced extraordinary suffering while confined in Georgia’s SMU,” said Allen Garrett, a partner at Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton, and one of the plaintiffs’ counsel.  “As the result of this case, the Department of Corrections has agreed to meaningful reforms that will provide SMU prisoners with essential human interaction and tangible guideposts for getting out of the SMU,” said Garrett.

The settlement will not become final until the federal court approves its terms as fair and reasonable.