Strapped for cash and facing rising criminal justice costs, Fulton County officials say they will study alternative sentencing and other ways to cut the whopping cost of prosecuting and jailing criminals.
County Commission Chairman John Eaves said he will convene a Smart Justice Advisory Council that will spend more than a year investigating alternatives to the lock ‘em up approach that now consumes 44 percent of the county’s $536 million general fund budget – up from a third of the budget just six years ago. Money from the general fund also pays for libraries, social services and other countywide programs that some worry are getting short shrift with the escalating cost of justice.
Fulton’s work to cut the cost of its justice system matches that of other counties and cities nationwide. Tough, but expensive, criminal justice policies are being reconsidered as governments work to balance budgets hit hard by recession. Fulton County is facing a $114 million deficit.
Legislators in Georgia and other states have passed laws that allow nonviolent offenders to be steered toward alternative sentencing programs and give judges more discretion to depart from mandatory minimum sentences. Attorney General Eric Holder recently directed federal prosecutors to change the way they charge some drug offenses to avoid mandatory minimum sentences.
This year, Fulton County has budgeted about $237 million for courts, the jail, the district attorney, the public defender’s office and other criminal justice costs. Most of that money comes from the general fund, but some also comes from various other funds.
Dean Dabney, a professor of criminal justice at Georgia State University who was named to the new advisory council, said, “People are being forced to think differently (about punishing criminals) because they can’t afford to think the way they were.”
Concerns about crime in recent decades sparked a nationwide push to keep criminals behind bars. Lawmakers approved mandatory minimum sentences, “three-strikes” laws and other provisions that have swelled the nation’s prison and jail populations. The costs of incarceration have been steep: In 2010 governments nationwide spent a combined $80.2 billion on corrections and another $56.1 billion on judicial and legal costs, according to federal estimates.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than 2.2 million people were incarcerated in state or federal prisons or local jails at the end of 2011.
Jail overcrowding has been a major problem in Fulton. The county jail has operated under a federal consent order to relieve overcrowding since 2006. Among other things, taxpayers have spent more than $53 million to rent beds in other jails to stay below a court-imposed cap of 2,500 inmates.
Commission chairman Eaves wants the county to explore sentencing alternatives and programs that keep people out of trouble in the first place.
“Wouldn’t it be great if we could use those dollars in more creative ways?” he said.
The Smart Justice Advisory Council includes judges and other county officials, Fulton County mayors, legislators, educators and citizens. It will focus on reducing the jail population and recidivism rates, and it will use statistical analysis to evaluate the effectiveness of the criminal justice system.
Eaves is a Democrat, but support for the initiative transcends party lines. State Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, is a longtime critic of county government but will serve on the Fulton advisory council. He hopes it will lead to much-needed reforms.
“Everybody who has some kind of criminal conduct doesn’t need to be put away,” Willard said. “Too often, we’ve locked them up and pushed them further down that same (criminal) road.”
Nevertheless, tough-on-crime measures have proven to be popular with voters and politicians alike. But that doesn’t mean they’re effective, according to GSU’s Dabney.
He said emphasizing punishment over rehabilitation has created hardened criminals who aren’t prepared to rejoin society when they get out of prison. That makes them much more likely to re-offend. Eaves said 80 to 90 percent of Fulton County inmates wind up back in jail after they’re released.
“It’s just a revolving door,” Eaves said.
Drug courts and other “accountability” courts that impose graduated sanctions could help ease overcrowding, but still provide consequences for breaking the law. For example, a judge might require an offender to go to work and meet other requirements or face consequences like weekends in jail.
“It’s not just `hug a thug,’” Dabney said. “You don’t do what you’re supposed to do, you get punished.”