Federal Judge threatens to jail Atlanta commissionersAtlanta Journal-Constitution
January 26, 2009
A federal judge on Tuesday threatened Fulton County commissioners with fines or incarceration if they don't provide adequate funding for the county jail.
In a three-page order, Senior U.S. District Court Judge Marvin Shoob put officials on notice they could be held in contempt if Sheriff Ted Jackson is not provided the necessary resources to bring the jail into compliance with a court order.
Shoob issued the order in an ongoing case filed in 2004 that alleged the jail was understaffed, crowded, dirty and dangerous. In February 2006, Shoob approved a consent decree, under which the county pledged to improve conditions.
Shoob's court-appointed monitor recently expressed concern over the county's decision to cut the sheriff's budget from $98 million to $93.4 million. The monitor believes such a reduced budget will not enable the sheriff to comply with the consent decree, Shoob said.
"The county defendants should be aware that it is their obligation to budget sufficient funds to enable the sheriff to comply with all requirements set out in the consent decree," Shoob wrote. "This obligation is unconditional."
Revenue shortfalls or a general need to cut spending will not be considered "as a justification for noncompliance with this obligation," Shoob added. The county defendants will be held to account for any violation of the consent decree "if they fail to comply for any reason."
If Jackson, the county's new sheriff, believes the county has not given him enough money, then he should seek additional funding, Shoob said. If that money is not provided, then the sheriff should notify the court so a contempt hearing can be scheduled.
If the defendants are found in contempt, "possible sanctions will include not only monetary fines but possible incarceration of individual defendants," he wrote.
Shoob listed the defendants as Fulton County, the Fulton County Board of Commissioners and the individual commissioners.
County Attorney R. David Ware, in a statement e-mailed to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, noted that the order requires Jackson to notify the county if he determines his budget is insufficient and that it provides the county with the opportunity to respond.
"We anticipate that all parties will work together cooperatively to insure full compliance with the consent decree," Ware said.
An Atlanta lawyer representing the inmate who initially filed the lawsuit said the case shows how much it costs to properly run a jail.
"Holding people in jail is expensive and the judge is making it clear there's no way around that," said Lisa Kung, director of the Southern Center for Human Rights.
Kung said ways costs could be cut if the jail were not a "dumping ground" for people with mental health issues and for those who commit "poverty crimes." There also should be a way to streamline procedures so detainees can more quickly post bond and be released, she said.