Work with state, give judges options

“Protection to person and property is the paramount duty of government.” This phrase, which appears on the first page of the Georgia Constitution, highlights the importance of the criminal justice system. In keeping with this focus, the Legislature recently enacted sweeping criminal justice reforms designed to reduce crime rates, recidivism and costs. As Atlanta’s leaders seek to address criminal justice, it would be wise to follow the state’s lead.

As of 2010, 1 in every 70 Georgia adults was incarcerated, the fourth-highest percentage in the country. One in every 13 Georgia adults was under criminal justice supervision, the highest rate in the country. Nearly one-third of the adult inmates who were released from prison were back within three years. The recidivism rates among juveniles released from state prisons was even higher, 65 percent.

These appalling statistics led state leaders in 2011 to propose a “smart on crime” approach: Divert non-violent offenders to more effective and less expensive programs while freeing up expensive prison space for more dangerous felons.

In 2012 and 2013, legislators unanimously passed sweeping reforms to the adult and juvenile criminal justice systems. Taxpayer savings are projected to be more than $300 million. Already, positive results are evident: savings of $20 million and a 10-percent drop in the state prison population.

It is still too early to analyze the effect on crime or recidivism rates. But the reforms appear to be working. Several states have passed similar reforms, citing Georgia and Texas as their models.

The city of Atlanta has similar problems: an overflowing jail, high crime rates in some parts of the city, and very high recidivism rates. The crime rate is trending down. But it is still too high.

The Atlanta Police Department appears to be taking appropriate measures: adding patrol officers, and partnering with peers in Los Angeles, New York and London and even the Israel National Police to share training and crime prevention methods. It is also using the same statistical analysis that helped New York City dramatically reduce its crime rate.

Fulton County’s court system is also moving in the right direction, establishing several special courts — “accountability” courts — to focus on the underlying issues driving criminal activity. The Fulton County Drug Court focuses on substance abuse problems; the Behavioral Health Court, on mental health issues, and the Veterans Court, on veterans with conditions such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Diverting individuals arrested for non-violent criminal activity into an accountability court is typically far more effective than incarceration. A bonus: It’s less costly for taxpayers.

Unfortunately, the recidivism rate in Atlanta remains too high. Recognizing this, Mayor Kasim Reed made criminal justice a major focus of his recent re-election campaign. He has followed through with the creation of a Repeat Offenders Commission. The commission, similar to the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform that drove state reforms, comprises members from every area of the criminal justice system.

The commission is likely to find that judges need more information and options in sentencing. Sophisticated risk assessment is now used around the nation to help judges determine which individuals will respond best to diversion programs. Judges also need a graduated array of sanctions at their disposal, including more day-reporting centers, more capacity in existing accountability courts and more community resources.

Finally, Fulton County should work closely with the state as it focuses on education and skills training to prepare individuals to obtain the best anti-recidivism program — a job.

The mayor’s leadership has been crucial: It reinforces Atlanta’s determination to address crime. Georgia is a nationally recognized leader in criminal justice reform thanks to leadership at the state level. Atlanta should follow the state’s playbook and become a leader among major cities in fighting crime.

Kelly McCutchen is president and CEO of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.

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