Georgia prison population, costs on rise

As Georgia lawmakers desperately search for ways to slash spending, they are not debating an option taken by other states: cutting the prison population.

Georgia operates the fifth-largest prison system in the nation, at a cost of $1 billion a year. The job of overseeing 60,000 inmates and 150,000 felons on probation consumes 1 of every 17 state dollars.

The state’s prison population has jumped by more than a quarter in the past decade and officials expect the number of state inmates to continue to creep upward. Georgia has resorted to measures other than reducing the prison population to keep corrections spending under control.

“The adage says, ‘If you do the crime, you do the time,’ and we still have a Legislature that tends to believe in that,” said Rep. Terry Barnard (R-Glennville), who chairs a House committee that oversees prisons and other state facilities.

Georgia prisoners are serving longer sentences due to tough-on-crime laws adopted in the 1990s. Those laws ban early release through parole for many offenders. A wave of convictions related to illegal methamphetamine also pushed up prison admissions in recent years.

Enough states are experimenting with keeping fewer offenders behind bars that the total number of state prisoners held nationwide declined this year for the first time in nearly four decades, according to a new report by the Pew Center on the States.

The Pew study found that prison populations dropped in half the states. Georgia was among the states that posted an increase.

Budget problems played a role in the prison population reductions elsewhere. But so did a sense among some policy makers that continuing to put greater numbers of offenders behind bars for longer sentences would not be effective at reducing crime, especially for some non-violent offenders and those incarcerated on drug charges.

Texas and Mississippi are among the states that have cut prison populations. Texas avoided a huge prison population gain and $2 billion in expected prison costs by investing in residential and community-based treatment and diversion programs. The state spent $241 million to create the programs – a fraction of the cost of incarceration. Texas also granted parole to more prisoners and cut probation sentences.

Mississippi reduced its prison population and saved millions by allowing nonviolent offenders to be considered for parole after serving 25 percent of a sentence, instead of the 85 percent previously required. More than 3,000 offenders were released an average of 13 months earlier than they would have been under the old law. The state uses a sophisticated tool to determine which inmates pose a low risk and so far recidivism rates have been low.

“A wide mix of states across the country are reaching across the partisan aisle and finding ways to cut recidivism and corrections spending, but that doesn’t seem to be happening in Georgia,” said Adam Gelb, director of the Public Safety Performance Project at the Pew Center on the States.

States working to cut prison populations are relying on new research that helps them identify which offenders are likely to do well outside of prison and which programs work best to discourage recidivism.

“We know a tremendous amount more today than we did 30 years ago, when we started down the prison building path, about how to stop the revolving door,” Gelb said.

Cutting Georgia’s prison population hasn’t been debated this year, even as legislators have considered drastic cuts in education, health care programs and the judiciary. Given the state’s finances, some influential voices say it is time to begin a conversation about prison spending.

State Rep. Chuck Martin (R-Alpharetta), who leads a subcommittee that oversees public safety spending, said it makes sense for the Legislature to study alternatives.

Martin said sentencing some low-risk offenders to house arrest at night, while requiring them to work during the day, could be more effective than placing them behind bars for a year with hardened criminals. Such an approach could conserve resources to keep dangerous offenders locked up, he said, while also steering low-level offenders into more productive lives.

“If they are non-violent and do not pose a risk to the community or themselves,” Martin said, “let’s find a way to punish them and make them continue to work and pay restitution and support their family.”

Newt Gingrich, the former Georgia Republican congressman who served as Speaker of the House from 1995 to 1999, wrote recently in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that “Georgia simply can’t afford for the corrections system to maintain the status quo.”

Gingrich argued that recidivism rates are unacceptably high and that churches and non-profits need to offer more resources and support to help offenders who are released from prison build productive lives in the community.

“Celebrating taking criminals off the street with little thought to their imminent return to society is foolhardy,” Gingrich wrote in the article, which was co-authored by Mark Earley, a former attorney general of Virginia.

Supervising an offender on parole costs Georgia taxpayers an average of $4.43 a day, compared with $46 a day to house someone in prison.

While it has not cut the prison population, Georgia has restrained prison spending. The Department of Corrections has reduced staffing even as the number of prison inmates rose. That’s been possible by replacing antiquated prisons with modestly-priced “fast track” additions to existing prisons that can be safely operated with fewer correctional officers.

The Department of Corrections, which today has about 13,000 employees, has eliminated more than 1,500 positions in the past year.

The state has also opened about a dozen “day reporting centers” — cost-effective facilities where offenders on probation report during the day for help with substance abuse, criminal thinking, education and employment issues. Research shows that such programs cut down on costly readmissions to prison.

The state is also experimenting with in-patient substance abuse treatment for some offenders in prison. The new program is expected to shorten the time some drug offenders spend behind bars.

“It’s a combination of things that have taken place that have helped sustain us and get us through this,” said Michael Nail, who oversees prison operations for the Department of Corrections.

The department’s approach, Nail said, emphasizes long-term changes that will save money year after year.

Georgia’s prison population continues to rise. But the increases aren’t at nearly the rate experienced between 2000 and 2005, when the number of convictions related to illegal methamphetamine use exploded.

“When we look at the prison population and the growth, it is actually leveling off,” Nail said.

Still, the state can’t yet handle all the offenders sentenced to serve time in prison. The state’s 57,000 prison beds are filled, with more than 2,000 prisoners being held in county jails until space in a state prison is available.

In spite of Georgia’s dire financial condition, Barnard said, he doesn’t think the state has reached a point where it needs to consider changes in sentencing to save money.

During his 16 years in the Legislature, he said, the number of inmates locked up and spending on prisons have both about doubled.

“I haven’t seen anyone from the streets saying that’s wasting money,” Barnard said. “Public safety is very important in Georgia.”