Bond Seeks More Prison for Aggressive Panhandlers in Atlanta

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(APN) ATLANTA — Councilman Michael Julian Bond (Post 1-at-large), who serves as Chair of the Public Safety/Legal Administration (PS/LA) Cmte of the City Council of Atlanta, has introduced legislation which seeks to increase the penalty for individuals convicted of aggressive panhandling to six months of prison time, for any third and subsequent offenses.

Introduction of the legislation–which Bond said was motivated by calls from constituents in the Five Points area of Downtown Atlanta–reopens a Pandora’s box of policy issues that Atlanta has not dealt with since the controversial passage of the 2005 ordinance on panhandling.

In 2005, Atlanta made national news when the Council passed legislation banning all panhandling–not just aggressive panhandling–in the so-called Tourist Triangle in downtown Atlanta and other areas.  

In 2005, about five hundred community activists and homeless people slept outside of Atlanta City Hall.  One of those activists, Dr. Dwanda Farmer, tells Atlanta Progressive News, “It looks like we’ll be camping out in front of City Hall again.”

Since 2005, some politicians have talked about wanting to expand the panhandling ban to other parts of the City.  For example, former candidates Steve Brodie and Charlie Stadtlander have advocated a panhandling ban for Midtown.  However, doing so would face Constitutional challenges because the limitations to free speech would be less narrowly tailored to a specific area for a specific purpose.

In all parts of the City, the current ordinance bans aggressive panhandling–and other forms of commercial solicitation–as well as commercial solicitation at night, and false or misleading solicitation.

The current ordinance also bans all panhandling–and other forms of commercial solicitation–in certain areas, including the Tourist Triangle, King Center Tourist Area, and fifteen feet from an ATM, payphone, parking lot pay box, and other areas.

The ordinance lays out a set of penalties for violation of any part of the ordinance, meaning that the penalties are currently the same for aggressive panhandling and non-aggressive panhandling in a restricted area.  Upon a first and second conviction, the penalties are a citation or a summons, which can result in an evaluation by an Outreach Team Evaluator and referral to a Community Outreach Services Program.

Currently, a third violation of any part of the ordinance, can result in “direction to a community outreach services program; the performance of up to 30 days community service; a monetary fine not to exceed $1,000.00; and/or imprisonment not to exceed 30 days.”

Bond’s proposed legislation would add a new section: “Upon conviction for a third offense of aggressive solicitation as defined in 43-1 (d), and subsequent offenses, the violator shall be sentenced to 180 days to be served in the City of Atlanta Detention Center.  Said sentence shall include inmate assessment and evaluation for services that may include, but are not limited to, supportive or transitional housing, mental health services, job training and substance abuse treatment.”

The legislation is motivated by the tourism industry, according to the bill’s preamble, which begins, “WHEREAS, Atlanta is host to numerous conventions, trade shows and tourist attractions; and, WHEREAS, Each year, these events and attractions bring more than 37 million visitors and conventioneers to Atlanta, generating a combined $11.4 billion in revenue…”

According to the Code of Ordinances, reviewed by APN, aggressive panhandling is defined as    
“blocking the path of the person solicited; or… following or walking alongside the person solicited; or… using profane or abusive language, either during the solicitation or following refusal; or…
accosting or forcing oneself upon the company of another; or … any statement, gesture, or other communication which a reasonable person in the situation of the person solicited would perceive to be a threat.”

But what would be the cost of such extended incarceration of aggressive panhandlers be to the taxpayers?

According to a “Records Certification” document obtained by APN, certified by Diane Jones, Assistant Chief for the Department of Corrections Records Management Unit for the City of Atlanta, “The approximate Cost to maintain an inmate in the Atlanta City Detention Center is $78.00 per day.”

At that rate, a six month sentence would cost the City of Atlanta just over 14,000 dollars per person, and over 700,000 dollars for fifty aggressive panhandlers per year.

And while the Governor and Georgia Legislature are trying to address the State’s overcrowded prison system by focusing on sentencing alternatives for non-violent offenders, the City of Atlanta recently approved incarceration for individuals caught smoking in a public park, and is now considering extended prison time for aggressive panhandlers.

Joe Beasley, the Southern Regional Director for the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, is opposed to the legislation, referring to it as, “goddamned stupid and regressive and racist.”

“How is it impacting these people you’re throwing into county jail and city jail?  At what point do we begin to deal with the harsh realities of what you’re proposing?” Beasley said of Bond’s legislation.

“My issue with the legislation is the victim of our society and our capitalistic model that’s locked so many people out – because you can’t survive in a capitalistic system without money for your basic needs, and if you get locked out and you can’t make a legal living, you have to resort to survival mode.  For some it may have to be aggressively panhandling and begging people for money so they can survive,” Beasley said.

Bond said his legislation is intended to target those who he alleges are “gaming the system,” citing a person he knew of who panhandled, allegedly made several hundred dollars per day but was not actually homeless.

“I would submit to you most of these people who are aggressively panhandling are the ones who are gaming the system,” Bond told APN.

“I think what Mr. Bond is suggesting, that these are hustlers, that these are people who are not a legitimate need – and I think that his premise is wrong,” Beasley said.

When asked whether the panhandlers could be acting aggressive because they’re simply hungry and desperate, Bond replied there are enough churches providing food in downtown Atlanta that no one should be hungry.

Anita Beaty, Executive Director of the Task Force for the Homeless, countered this, noting that, “Some people are afraid of crowds.  A lot of homeless people are working.  If you’re not there at the right time you don’t eat.”

“That’s a goddamn lie – he’s stupid.  I didn’t think he’d be that ignorant, to think these Downtown churches, they’re not doing it,” Beasley said.  “That’s the myth that’s been put out here by Central Atlanta Progress and the Chamber of Commerce.  That people like Michael Bond would buy into that lie is a damnable situation.”

In any event, Bond’s legislation does not actually deal with false or misleading solicitation, which is covered in part (e) of the section; it only deals with aggressive solicitation, which is covered in part (d).  However, it makes the assumption that all aggressive solicitors must be also deceptive.

“I’m not trying to restrict any person from soliciting alms or soliciting a donation for a football team,” Bond told APN, “but people who harass people because they’re a hustler, they’re a career panhandler.”

Beaty also took issue with some of the vagaries of the definition of aggressive solicitation, which invokes the concept of a reasonable person, when it includes “any statement, gesture, or other communication which a reasonable person in the situation of the person solicited would perceive to be a threat.”

“The definition of aggressive is also a problem.  What’s reasonable to a little old lady from Des Moines who’s never seen a Black person.  He’s crossing the street and coming towards me, I feel threatened.”

When asked whether he realistically thought that a homeless person would be able to turn their lives around in jail in six months, he said, “I worked in a jail for four and a half years.  It is not a good place.  But this legislation isn’t about putting people in jail.  It’s about providing a deterrent to those who would victimize others in an aggressive way.”

“So it’s not about the services, it’s about the deterrent?” APN asked.

“It’s about both,” Bond replied, adding that there are social service workers in the jail who say that when panhandlers come in and out of jail like it was a revolving door, that this does not give the jail enough time to really help them.

“They don’t have adequate resources to work with folks that want to work with them now.  It’s insane they’re relying on an incarceration system to provide things they’re not providing now,” Beaty said.

“It’s based on the assumption people don’t want to be served, helped, healed, and it’s not true.  Here we go again to assume people are avoiding services but they’re not.  There has to be an absolute underlying right to housing,” Beaty said.

“If they’re not captive to us, then we can’t do anything for them – that’s bull – if they were offering services that worked and were helpful to people, that people would be incarcerated,” Beaty said.

Currently, the existing law is not being enforced, or it is being enforced sporadically.

Atlanta Police Department spokesperson Carlos Campos did not immediately have statistics on citations and arrests made under the commercial solicitation ordinance; however, he promised to answer questions to be emailed by APN.

Part of the reason the law is not being enforced is because it requires that when APD cite someone for panhandling, that “the law enforcement officer issuing the citation shall request an outreach team evaluator to make an onsite evaluation of the violator.”

The Outreach Team Evaluator is also required to make referrals to the panhandler for appropriate social services.  They “shall offer immediate referral and direction to an appropriate community outreach services program to each and every person issued a citation under this section.”

These service referrals are supposed to be part of the response to all violations of the commercial solicitation ordinance, whether first, second, third, or more than third; or whether or not the solicitation was aggressive.

However, it is not realistic for an officer to detain an individual until the alleged evaluator arrives.  

Neither Campos nor Bond were immediately aware of who these evaluators are, if there are in fact any, who contract with APD to provide these services; and neither were aware of what Community Outreach Services Program the panhandlers were being referred to, if any.

There is a provision in the ordinance that allows the officer to include the referral in the written citations after the person is no longer detained, if an evaluator is not available at the time the person is being cited.  In that case, it does not appear likely that the person even becomes aware of what the evaluation, if any, states.

Carlos did say that APD has an Homeless Outreach Proactive Enforcement (HOPE) team that is supposed to help homeless people, but it is not immediately clear whether this team provides any services pursuant to the provisions of the commercial solicitation ordinance.

“It’s not outreach we need – there’s still nowhere to go.  They’re outreach services, not residential services – these are homeless people.  Police don’t have the time, they don’t have access 24/7.  If they do, there are more outreach services without places to put people, than there are places to put people,” Beaty said.

Beaty also was concerned about how a police record associated with any citations or convictions under the commercial solicitation ordinance will impact the future employment prospects of a currently homeless person.

“People are trying to get work and trying to get housing- and their police record blocks it,” Beaty said.

Bond’s office tells APN that there will be an upcoming Work Session on the proposed legislation and that it will also be discussed at the July 31, 2012, meeting of the PS/LA Cmte.

(END/2012)

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