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How Raphael Warnock Used Millions in Fed Cash to Dismantle an Atlanta Jail

Soros-backed nonprofit will run 'diversion center' seeking to 'transition away' from criminal justice system

Sen. Raphael Warnock (D., Ga.) speaks to members of the press after a Senate Democratic Caucus meeting on Jan. 18, 2022, in Washington, D.C. / Getty Images
• March 31, 2022 5:00 am

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Sen. Raphael Warnock (D., Ga.) steered $4 million in federal funds to convert part of Atlanta's city jail into a "diversion center" run by a George Soros-backed nonprofit that seeks to "transition away" from the criminal justice system.

The center, which received city council approval in February, will provide police with an "alternative" to incarcerating suspects who are "experiencing poverty, homelessness, substance abuse, or mental health issues," according to Atlanta lawmakers. Instead, the city will encourage police to drop off eligible offenders at the diversion center, which will offer noncompulsory services such as beds, showers, and mental health screenings, according to city officials.

The center will be co-managed by the Soros-funded Policing Alternatives and Diversion Initiative (PAD) and will help the city "transition away from legal system responses that utilize jails or arrest for concerns related to homelessness, mental health, substance use, and poverty," according to a memorandum of understanding between the Atlanta city government and PAD.

Warnock requested the $4 million earmark in June amid rising crime in Atlanta, which has seen a spike in burglaries, rapes, and homicides. Police say they are frustrated by the city's revolving door of repeat offenders, who commit up to 40 percent of crimes in the city and are released back on the streets after serving little to no prison time.

Crime could become an election issue for Warnock, who is facing a competitive reelection that will likely pit him against Republican primary frontrunner Herschel Walker. The senator was accused of taking a soft-on-crime approach by his prior Republican opponent in the 2020 election. Warnock has called for the end of "mass incarceration"—his term for the current prison system—and said in a 2018 speech that it was "not enough to decriminalize marijuana. Somebody's got to open up the jails and let our children go."

PAD, the nonprofit group that will help manage the diversion center, is funded by Democratic donor George Soros through his charitable group, Open Society Foundations.

The center will be an expansion of PAD's ongoing partnership with the city. A task force convened by Atlanta's mayor last year recommended that the city revise the Atlanta Police Department's performance evaluation system to "incentivize" diversions through the PAD program and "deincentivize" arrests for eligible offenders.

Unlike pre-trial diversion programs—which take place after an individual has been charged and can help avoid jail time or a trial—pre-arrest diversion allows suspects to avoid arrest completely. Police officers, however, must first have probable cause to make an arrest before referring an individual to PAD.

"If the individual consents, the [responding] officer calls the PAD Harm Reduction team instead of making an arrest, and PAD comes to the scene to begin working with the individual to address immediate basic needs," said PAD. "No police report is made."

There is no obligation for a suspect to participate in the program beyond the initial hand-off. Suspects with prior violent convictions and repeat felonies are eligible for the PAD program, as long as they have no pending violence charges against them.

The center was first proposed by former Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, whose decisions to relax drug laws, reduce enforcement against shoplifting, eliminate cash bail, and shut down the city's cooperation with federal immigration enforcement significantly reduced the number of inmates in the city jail.

Bottoms and reform advocates called for razing the building and replacing it with a proposed $100 million "Center for Equity" that would include a spa, recording studios, performance arts theater, and permanent housing alongside the pre-arrest diversion center.

That proposal was drastically scaled back—at least temporarily—after an outcry from city residents, who argued that the facility should be used to house inmates from the overflowing Fulton County jail just a few blocks away.