Civil liberties groups settle lawsuit over Fulton County Jail population

(The Center Square) — Civil liberties groups have settled a lawsuit with the Fulton County District Attorney’s Office, which proponents say could help reduce the Fulton County Jail’s population.

Earlier this year, the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Georgia sued Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis in her official capacity on behalf of the Barred Business Foundation, an Atlanta-based nonprofit. They argued that the DA’s office did not comply with a court rule, Uniform Superior Court Rule 26.3, which mandates that prosecutors notify the circuit’s chief judge in writing when someone charged with a felony is in custody for more than 45 days but not indicted.

According to an ACLU of Georgia news release, the settlement was reached after the District Attorney’s Office agreed to comply with the rule moving forward. The DA’s office will notify the chief judge of the jail’s pre-indictment population.

“Although a lawsuit should not have been necessary to force the Fulton County District Attorney’s Office to comply with its mandatory public duty, this settlement is one step, hopefully of many, to hold Fulton County officials to account for the persistent overcrowding at the Fulton County Jail,” Julian Clark, staff attorney with the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project said in a statement. “Fulton County has much more work to do to decarcerate its jails and begin repairing the harms of its overuse of the carceral system.”

The ACLU of Georgia said the lawsuit expands its 2023 report, which found one of the drivers of the Fulton County Jail’s overcrowding was the number of people held without indictment. As of October 2023, 37% of the Fulton County Jail’s population, or 1,114, were detained and unindicted, according to the release.

In a May 31 letter to Fulton County Superior Court Chief Judge Ural Glanville, Andrea Alabi, legal counsel for the Fulton County DA’s office, prosecutors acknowledged that Fulton County maintains a list of names of defendants jailed on misdemeanors that “criminal justice partners,” including the chief judge can access.

“It is the State’s position that this process, adopted by criminal justice partners nearly a decade ago, satisfies Superior Court Rule 26.3,” Alabi wrote in the letter, which the ACLU of Georgia released. “Notwithstanding Fulton County’s current notification process, the State agrees to send directly to you, the Chief Judge of the Atlanta Judicial Circuit, a list of unindicted accused charged with a criminal felony in custody.”

A spokesman for the Fulton County District Attorney’s Office did not respond to a request for comment on whether the office would need additional resources to comply with the ruling.

Separately, the Senate Committee on Public Safety’s Fulton County Jail Subcommittee has held hearings investigating the “root causes” and possible solutions for fixing the jail. The subcommittee is preparing to file a report and recommendations that could guide legislative action when lawmakers return to Atlanta next year.