Substantially fewer African-Americans are being locked up in Georgia, a remarkable and historic change in a state that has long packed its prisons with disproportionate numbers of black offenders.
Black people still make up more than 60 percent of the state prison population. But in just the past five years, the number of black men being sent to prison has declined 19 percent, and the number of black women has tumbled 33 percent, according to Department of Corrections data obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Prison sentences imposed on African-American offenders have dropped by 20 percent. The decline is so great that the number of blacks entering the prison system in 2013 was at its lowest level since 1988 – a quarter of a century before.
“Georgia’s been going in one direction for more than 50 years,” said Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project in Washington. “But a 20 percent decline in the number of blacks being sent to prison is not trivial, it’s not a blip. It’s a substantial shift away from the dynamics of the past. The question is can we build on it.”
The data show that, with the exception of Gwinnett, the major metro Atlanta counties are sending far fewer people of all races to state prisons than they did just five years ago.
The change reflects a new philosophy on sentencing in Georgia, which led the nation in criminal punishment as recently as 2009 but is now bent on saving money and changing lives. Hundreds of nonviolent offenders who might otherwise be wasting their lives in prison are instead receiving opportunities to get off drugs and take responsibility for themselves.
And the downward trends are unmistakable: Since 2009, the number of all offenders sentenced to Georgia’s prison system has declined by almost 15 percent. Among white offenders, the numbers are far less dramatic but still down by 2.5 percent.
Police and prosecutors attribute the new sentencing patterns to a declining crime rate; the rise of accountability courts statewide; other programs that treat drug addicts and the mentally ill; and an emphasis on reserving prison beds for sex offenders and violent criminals.
The steep drop in the number of black offenders being sent to prison results in part from a changing drug culture and law enforcement efforts to combat it, Russell “Rusty” Andrews, the GBI’s deputy director, said.
In recent years, Andrews noted, cases involving crack cocaine, a drug used predominantly by African-Americans, have declined precipitously, while cases involving methamphetamine, a drug of choice among whites, have skyrocketed. This helps explain why there has been only a slight dip in the number white offenders being put behind bars.
GBI records show that in fiscal year 2009, the bureau’s crime lab conducted 13,147 positive tests for cocaine seizures, and 7,477 positive tests for the drug last year. Conversely, the lab logged 4,732 positive tests for methamphetamine in 2009; the number last year: 10,129.
“There’s been a widespread acceptance of drug courts and a shift in public opinion that we cannot continue to lock up every person who has committed a felony,” GBI Director Vernon Keenan said. “For decades, progressive law enforcement has said that people arrested for drugs and who are addicts need treatment and not incarceration. This shows there is finally a recognition of that.”
An examination by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution of the new sentencing trends also found:
- Fulton, with a 32 percent decrease, led metro counties in sending fewer offenders to prison, followed Clayton, Cobb and DeKalb. Gwinnett had a 7 percent increase.
- Prison sentences for drug offenses dropped 23 percent during the five year period, while sentences for property crimes declined 21 percent.
- Even though the number of offenders sent to prison dropped 15 percent, the overall inmate population shrunk only 3 percent (from 53,314 in 2009 to 51,571 last year). This is because two out of every three Georgia inmates are sex offenders or violent criminals serving lengthy sentences, many without the possibility of parole.
The state spends $1.14 billion a year on prisons, up 73 percent since 1995. Just a few years ago, Georgia faced the prospect of spending another $260 million on new prison beds to accommodate a steadily rising prison population.
“That’s off the table,” Corrections Commissioner Brian Owens said in an interview. “Now, the question is: How far down can we go? And can we give the governor and the General Assembly some funds back to invest in education and roads and economic development and all the good stuff that grows the state, rather than a prison population that serves as an anchor on the state?”
‘Stay positive and stand strong’
During an early budget meeting, Owens told Gov. Nathan Deal the state was about to shut down three pre-release centers housing inmates who were about to return to society. Wouldn’t it be better, Owens asked, to keep these centers open and use them for treatment?
Deal, who has spearheaded sweeping criminal justice reform initiatives, immediately agreed, Owens said.
The women’s center in Zebulon and a men’s center in Appling County were converted in 2012 to treat offenders with both drug addiction and mental illness. Another men’s center, in Turner County, is a substance-abuse treatment facility.
On Thursday in Zebulon, Christy Brower, wearing a light blue cap and gown and unable to hold back her tears, stood before fellow detainees, staff and family members and accepted her diploma.
She and three other graduates are among more than 150 women to complete the treatment program since the facility opened two years ago. They will return to society with reentry plans and already scheduled visits with doctors, mental health counselors and probation officers.
“I’m now going home to do what I always should have been doing,” Brower said. “I know now what I think affects what I do. I must stay positive and stand strong because I am somebody.”
Brower, 36, became addicted to painkillers as a teenager. In 2007, she was arrested in Bibb County for possession of oxycodone and sentenced to probation. But last October, Brower violated the terms of her probation and faced likely prison time.
Instead, she sought help.
The Zebulon center treats 138 women, ages 19 to 62, who suffer from anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and other illnesses. The 10-person treatment staff includes an on-site psychologist and seven counselors.
The program lasts a minimum of nine months. The women live in dorms, wear uniforms, attend classes and group sessions and have access to an off-site psychiatrist via web cam.
They also must memorize the program’s philosophy, an eight-paragraph manifesto that preaches love, self-control, respect, courage and support of one another. Superintendent Alfreta Dunn-Logan recently walked through the facility, asking groups of women to recite the lines. They immediately stood at attention and chanted in unison, their voices reverberating across the tiled floors and cinder block walls.
First, let us know these things …
That our lives matter …
That we are not victims of circumstance …
That to be free we must master our own habits …
That we can become something greater than ourselves… .
“I asked to come here for help, because I was sick and I was tired,” Brower said. “I’m sorry I had to become a felon to get here, but I knew I needed help. I just didn’t know I’d get all this help. This has been great.”
The three facilities are treating more than 500 men and women a year and are contributing to the declining number of offenders entering the state prison system.
‘Like the system was stuck on stupid’
Local prosecutors give varying explanations for the emerging sentencing trends.
Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter said he is not at all bothered that his county has maintained the status quo, whereas neighboring counties saw steep drops in prison sentences.
Porter said he has held on to the same philosophy since being elected DA more than two decades ago. “If you sell or distribute drugs in Gwinnett County, if you drive impaired and hurt or kill somebody, if you molest, abuse or kill, you’re going to prison,” he said.
DeKalb District Attorney Robert James had a different take. His first thought upon seeing the recent corrections data was “elation.”
“We’ve been treating a public health problem with a criminal justice prescription,” James said. “And it doesn’t work. It absolutely 100 percent doesn’t work.”
During the 1980s and 1990s, the primary and seeming unrelenting focus was getting tough on crime, he said.
“I’ve always felt like the criminal justice system was for too long stuck on stupid in that regard,” he said. “If I’ve got a 17-year-old who’s selling drugs on the corner in East Atlanta or South DeKalb, I don’t know if I’m protecting society from that person if I lock him up and he then doesn’t get an education. I think there are some things we can do with that individual before we throw that person to the wolves, before we throw him away for a period of time.”
Recidivism rates for young, poor, uneducated and minority offenders after being released from prison are unacceptable, James said. “Hopefully some of these people who are not going to prison are graduating from high schools, going to college or trade schools and are becoming productive citizens.”
Clayton County DA Tracy Lawson said the county’s school system, police, courts and prosecutor’s office all work together to try to reverse the trend of disproportionate numbers of minorities being put behind bars. The drop in prison commitments from Clayton County — by nearly a third — shows their efforts have been working, she said.
The improving economy may be a factor behind the precipitous decline in burglaries, forgeries and thefts, Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard. With more people working, fewer people are committing crimes, he said.
“Many black men who in the past might have committed crimes out of economic need are no longer doing so,” Howard said.
Drug court: ‘we take the hard cases’
In recent years, Georgia lawmakers, at Deal’s urging, have boosted funding for accountability courts — programs that closely monitor an offender’s progress toward drug-free living or mental health treatment. Since 2007 alone, more than three dozen such courts have opened their doors across Georgia. In the first quarter of 2014, more than 4,100 offenders were enrolled in the state’s 105 accountability courts, and many of these participants would likely be in prison without this alternative.
Superior Court Judge James Blanchard of the Augusta circuit, who started his drug court in 2008, said programs like his could have saved many more lives and kept more people out of prison if they had opened sooner.
Participants in Blanchard’s program receive drug tests once a week, do community service and come to court every Thursday.
The drugs people use have changed, the judge noted. Of the more than 100 people in the program now, 75 percent were using opiates like heroin, oxycontin or hydrocodone. In the past, it was more likely marijuana and powdered or crack cocaine.
Offenders who enter Blanchard’s two-year-long drug court must be drug-free for at least one year before graduating. So far, Blanchard said, the program has about a 75 percent success rate.
“That’s a good thing,” he said. “We take the hard cases.”
Stephen Bright, senior counsel of the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, said he was pleased to see the state’s new sentencing trends.
“Our discriminatory law enforcement policies have destroyed people, families and communities,” he said. “This is a significant, positive development.”
Still, Bright noted, the most recent U.S. census numbers show that African-Americans make up 31.4 percent of Georgia’s population, and they also account for 62 percent of the prison population.
“There is still a long way to go,” he said.
Staff writer James Salzer contributed to this article.