State to close Metro State Prison; penal reform on state agenda

The Georgia Department of Corrections will close Metro State Prison in DeKalb County in April to save $19.1 million, Corrections Commissioner Brian Owens told legislators Wednesday.

Metro State is a maximum-security prison for women that has about 900 beds but only about 700 inmates.

Owens said the number of women coming into the system has dropped, so not as many beds are needed. Metro's inmates will be moved to other prisons. In this age of budget shortfalls when every department in the state is being asked to spend less, closing the prison is a way to save money, he said.

Owens was one of many department heads to give financial and operational reports to legislators as the General Assembly cranked up this week.

"[The prison] is going to be mothballed over the interim," Owens said afterward. "And maybe we will see if there is any interest from the feds in a facility like this."

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Metro State is the only prison scheduled to be closed this year as elected officials consider changes to the penal system.

Some changes have already come. Two privatized men's prisons are scheduled to open within the next two years, a 1,150-bed prison in Jenkins County and a 1,500-bed prison in Milledgeville. They are each designed to be expanded up to 2,500 beds, Owens said.

He told the legislators, "We get a big bang for our buck with private prisons in Georgia."

More changes are expected this legislative session. Gov. Nathan Deal is talking about large-scale changes that will get nonviolent offenders out of prisons and cut the $1 billion annual budget of the Department of Corrections, which he believes is unsustainable in this economic climate.

The number of inmates grew in the past decade by 27.5 percent, helped in part by a series of get-tough sentencing laws passed in the 1990s. It costs $49.35 a day to keep an inmate behind bars.

Deal spoke in his inaugural address about alternatives to incarceration such as drug courts, where offenders are sentenced to strict monitoring and help programs, and programs such as day-reporting centers, mental health courts and intensive probation for nonviolent offenders.

Deal will push to increase the alternatives, and the General Assembly is expected to appoint a commission to propose changes to the state's criminal code that will help. Several states already have adopted major reforms in criminal punishment, while many others are studying similar shifts.

Owens said six of every 10 inmates in Georgia prisons are there for sex offenses or violent crimes, leaving four of 10 who might be eligible for alternatives. The alternatives would have to be worked out hand in hand with counties and local court systems, who would play key roles in implementing any new systems, he said.

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