Panel begins work on slowing prison growth

Gov. Nathan Deal's criminal justice reform council on Monday began its work to find money-saving ways to sentence and manage the state's criminal population.

The panel has until the end of the year to submit recommendations to the 2013 General Assembly. This past session, the Legislature enacted a sentencing reform package projected to save taxpayers $264 million in prison spending over the next five years.

House Bill 1176 is designed to divert nonviolent drug and property offenders away from prison to less-expensive alternatives, such as drug, mental health and other so-called accountability courts.

"You made Georgia one of the leaders on this nationwide," Jason Newman, of the Pew Center on the States, which will continue to assist the council, told members. "You should be commended."

State Court of Appeals Judge Michael Boggs, a co-chair of the council, said no issue is off the table, provided it ensures public safety and is fiscally responsible.

Among issues to be considered, Boggs said, are: decriminalization of certain traffic offenses, safety valves for some minimum mandatory prison sentences, a rewrite of the state's juvenile justice code and ways to allow inmates to shave time off sentences if they behave well and meet goals.

The council, comprised of lawmakers, judges, lawyers and members of law enforcement, is also co-chaired by David Werner, the governor's deputy executive council. The governor appointed his son, Jason Deal, a Superior Court judge who oversees accountability courts in Hall and Dawson counties, to the council.

The governor appeared briefly as the council began its first meeing Monday, thanking members for their time and noting the Legislature did not enact all of the council's recommendations last year.

"You did good work," Deal said. "You looked at issues that were important to our state. I know you will continue that effort."