Georgia rethinks its prison stance

Conservative states across the South have altered their approach to criminal sentencing in recent years by replacing the tough-on-crime mantra with a “smart on crime” philosophy that supporters say saves money and could even cut repeat offenses.

Georgia may be next.

The General Assembly this winter will debate a shift in emphasis toward alternatives to prison time for nonviolent offenders, as suggested by a special council appointed last year to study the state’s prison population and criminal code. The effect of its recommendations would be to send fewer people to jail for property and drug crimes and boost alternative punishments.

That shift has the firm backing of Gov. Nathan Deal, who said it is time for Georgia to follow the lead of Texas, South Carolina and other Southern states and take a more effective approach to punishment.

He said Georgia, which now spends more than $1 billion a year on state prisons and has seen its inmate population double in the past 20 years, simply cannot afford to keep the current sentencing regime.

“We’re at a point in time where the necessity for doing something has gotten so big that to turn our head and pretend the problem does not exist is not responsible government,” Deal said in an interview.

“If we don’t make some changes, we’ll see an ever-increasing percentage of our state budget having to be allocated to our correction system. That takes away funding for things like education and other areas where many think the money is better spent.”

While Georgia has some of the toughest criminal penalties in the nation for violent and repeat offenders, almost every convict is spending more time behind bars these days than ever before.

The average inmate released this year after serving time for drug possession, for example, spent almost two years locked up -- more than double the average time served two decades ago. The average length of time spent behind bars for drug and property crimes in general has more than tripled since 1990.

It costs Georgia $51 a day to keep drug offenders and other nonviolent criminals locked up.

The Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform -- comprised of judges, lawmakers and other officials -- said Georgia’s prison population will increase by 8 percent to almost 60,000 inmates by 2016 if current policies remain in place. That jump will require taxpayers to spend an additional $264 million for more prison beds over the next five years.

The council found that most of the people being sent to prison are not murderers, rapists or robbers who held a gun to someone’s head. Drug and property offenders represent almost 60 percent of prison admissions.

Those pushing for change say the public can save money and even improve safety by removing some non-violent offenders from prison and finding other ways to make them accountable, while also turning them into productive citizens who take care of their kids and pay their taxes.

“It’s not productive to put a non-violent offender in prison when they might have a drug problem, not a criminal problem, or a mental health problem, not a criminal problem,” said Kelly McCutchen, president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank that has advocated for change in Georgia’s criminal sentencing.

The Special Council recommended tweaks to the criminal code that would result in shorter sentences or probation for some non-violent criminals. It also recommended beefing up the alternatives to prison.

Expanding “accountability” courts is one option with wide support. These are drug, mental health and veterans’ courts that seek to treat an offender’s underlying issues instead of locking the person up. Many of these courts, which monitor offenders closely with tough requirements to hold a job, stay in treatment and pass drug tests, have shown remarkable success rates, but they are not available throughout the state.

Deal said he will ask the General Assembly to spend $10 million for new accountability courts. “We believe there will be a benefit and financial savings that will come from these courts, diverting people out of the prison system,” the governor said.

Changes to the criminal code proved to be more controversial among those on the special council, especially when it came to drug offenses. But the group reached consensus on some changes, including:

  • Increasing the threshold that makes a theft a felony to $1,500 -- up from the current $500 which was established in 1982 -- and increasing the felony threshold of theft by shoplifting from $300 to $750.
  • Adjusting sentencing ranges for burglaries, with more serious punishment reserved for break-ins of homes and less severe sentences for burglaries of unoccupied structures, such as tool sheds, barns and other buildings.
  • Giving judges a "safety value" that would allow them, after making certain findings, to depart from mandatory sentences in the current law for drug trafficking.

The council did not reach consensus on drug crimes, but it pointed out that nearly 3,200 offenders were sent to prison ieach year for drug possession. Two-thirds of these inmates were assessed as having a relatively low risk to offend again. Some on the council argued that probation is often the appropriate sentence.

Douglas County District Attorney David McDade, one of Deal’s appointees on the commission, was the most vociferous opponent of easing up on drug offenders.

To give only probation for having small quantities of illegal drugs in effect “decriminalizes drug possession,” he said.

“I think the legislative leadership will look at this report and see a number of common sense proposals that will receive broad support,” McDade said. “But there are a number of proposals that are not what Georgians support, because they put at risk public safety.”

Georgia Court of Appeals Judge Michael Boggs of Waycross, also member of the council, called the recommendations a good start.

“We don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” Boggs said. “We have seen similar reform efforts enacted in some very conservative states, which have seen significant cost savings and maintained public safety.”

Boggs said he is aware there may be criticisms the council did not go far enough. “But you start slow and work toward some significant reform,” he said. “You can’t do it all in one legislative session.”

Stepping away from a lock-em-up philosophy might have been the equivalent of political suicide in the 1990s, but that’s hardly the case today. Many leading conservatives -- including Newt Gingrich and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and many others -- support an approach that de-emphasizes prison for non-violent offenders.

Texas was among the first states to change course. In 2007, facing the need to spend $540 million to build new prisons expected to cost another $1.5 billion to run, the state decided to spend a fraction of the anticipated prison costs on alternative programs for non-violent offenders. Since the change, both the crime rate and the incarceration rate have declined.

In 2010, South Carolina adopted a reform package after lawmakers found that prisons were packed with repeat and non-violent offenders. The changes, projected to save up to $175 million in prison construction costs and $66 million in operating costs over five years, are designed to improve public safety. North Carolina also adopted sweeping legislation last year that will reduce spending on corrections with the goal of increasing public safety through programs that should cut repeat offenses.

Deal said changes enacted in other states will give Georgia models to consider. And so far, he said, he is hearing positive responses from lawmakers of all stripes.

“As members of the General Assembly continue to see demands placed on them to appropriate more money for incarceration and see the numbers of inmates continue to rise substantially every year,” Deal said, “I think they’re certainly willing to embrace these changes.”

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