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Georgia No. 1 in convicted felons

People like to complain, but a lot of good things happened in 2017.

I kept breathing and typing and my 401(k) grew almost as fast as gray hairs.

And, miracle of miracles, the Georgia Bulldogs 1980 National Champions Coca-Cola bottle on my office shelf may finally get a companion. I was 14 when I got it and figured I would collect a six-pack before I could legally mix their contents with Jack Daniels. The ability to be wrong has dogged me ever since.

I'd say 1980 had us beat in some areas. Music was generally better. Sting was still with The Police and Kenny Chesney hadn't even cut the sleeves off his shirts yet.

Speaking of police, a lot less Georgians were considered criminals the last time UGA won a national championship in a sport people care about.

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According to a Government Technology magazine article published this week, the percentage of convicted felons in Georgia has almost quadrupled since 1980.

Georgia may be crowned No. 1 in college football Monday night, but as fans of the team know we're already No. 1 in criminal behavior.

Data from a UGA study the article is based on says an estimated 3 to 4 percent of Georgia adults had a felony conviction in 1980. By 2010, the most recent year for which data has been compiled, the percentage grew to 12 to 15 percent.

In Tennessee, a state chock full of guitarists in shiny cowboy boots pretending to be outlaws, only 7 percent of adults are felons.

The state with most law-abiding citizens? West Virginia, where only 2 percent of adults have fought the law and the law won.

Have Georgians changed so much in the last few decades? Laws have probably changed more than people.

Law enforcement began adopting a "get-tough strategy" in the 1980s -- many states elevated drug possession to felony status and district attorneys, who are elected officials, used felony convictions as a political platform. The article says "police focused drug enforcement on high-crime neighborhoods, which were often predominantly African-American."

As a result, felony convictions rose much faster among blacks than among whites.

In Georgia, the percentage of black adults with felony convictions rose from an estimated 7 percent in 1980 to 26 percent in 2010.

A 1983 Supreme Court case, Bearden v. Georgia determined judges can't jail defendants just because they are too poor to pay a fine. Judges often put poor people on probation until they pay off their fine.

About 3 percent of Georgia’s adult population was on felony probation as of 2015 — far more than any other state and a 12 percent increase from 2010, according to the latest federal figures from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Some say Georgia has so many people on probation because so many people -- and governments -- profit from it.

In 2000, the Georgia legislature passed a law that allowed for-profit probation services. A 2017 Slate article details who profits from such a scheme. A 61-year-old disabled woman was put on probation for shoplifting $7 worth of food and two pairs of underwear.

The probation company’s share of the woman's debt to society was $517, the state received $280 and $773 was given to the city of Duluth, which handled the case. Slate says fines and fees accounted for about 20 percent of Duluth's revenue.

Anyone who says crime doesn't pay doesn't know how the system works.

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