Georgia justice reformers: Cut the number of offenders on probation

State’s rate is almost four times the national average
Justice Michael Boggs, co-chair of the governor’s Council on Criminal Justice Reform (DAVID BARNES / DAVI D.BARNES@AJC.COM)

Justice Michael Boggs, co-chair of the governor’s Council on Criminal Justice Reform (DAVID BARNES / DAVI D.BARNES@AJC.COM)

Gov. Nathan Deal’s criminal justice reform council on Tuesday said Georgia needs to reduce the number of people it has on probation — now the highest rate of any other state in the country.

This would allow the state to put more resources into monitoring the most dangerous offenders on probation. It also would allow for increased scrutiny of offenders at the initial stages of their probationary sentences, where studies show they are more likely to commit new crimes, the council said.

The initiatives should mean “there will be fewer victims and fewer expensive returns to prison,” said the council, composed of judges, lawmakers, law enforcement officials and attorneys.

Georgia, with the nation's eighth-highest incarceration rate, stands head and shoulders above other states in the amount of people on probation. Georgia's rate of 6,161 per 100,000 adults on probation is almost four times greater than the national average of 1,568 per 100,000 residents, the council said.

Gov. Nathan Deal established the state’s criminal justice reform initiative in 2011. (DAVID BARNES / DAVID.BARNES@AJC.COM)

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Deal formed the council in 2011 to find alternatives to incarceration for low-risk, nonviolent offenders. This has led to a statewide network of accountability courts for drug addicts and the mentally ill and reduced penalties for nonviolent, low-level drug and property offenders.

The initiatives are starting to take effect. At the end of last year, the state prison population stood at 52,962, down from a peak of 54,985 in July 2012. In 2015, the number of African-American offenders sent to prison was the lowest in any single year since 1988.

All the while, the proportion of prison beds for the state’s most serious offenders has steadily increased from 58 percent to 67 percent, the council reported.

The state has reinvested some of the money it otherwise would have spent on building new prison beds for accountability courts, job training, substance abuse treatment facilities and inmate re-entry programs.

“In the last five years, our efforts to improve Georgia’s criminal justice system have improved overall efficiency, bolstered public safety and provided tools for incarcerated individuals to rebuild their lives,” Deal said.

“The comprehensive and thoughtful approach … demonstrates what can be done when partisanship is replaced with a data-driven, collaborative and inclusive approach,” said Justice Michael Boggs, co-chair of the council.

Putting an intense focus on the state’s probationary practices was a “logical next step,” the council said. At the end of 2015, Georgia had almost 206,000 people on felony probation, with per-capita rates twice that of Texas and four times greater than in North Carolina.

The council said offenders should be allowed to lop years off lengthy probationary sentences with good behavior. It also called for a more streamlined approach to remove nonviolent offenders from probation when they have complied with the conditions of their sentences, had no new arrests and paid restitution for their crimes.

If its recommendations are adopted, the council forecasts there will be almost 44,000 fewer people on probation over the next five years. This would allow about 140 probation officers supervising low-risk offenders to be reassigned to monitor more high-risk probationers, the report said.