This article was published on Monday, November 21 by the Franklin Center for Government:
Georgia’s criminal justice reform special council has delivered a recipe of recommendations that, if adopted by the General Assembly next year, could eventually shorten behind-the-bars time for some nonviolent offenders. It would also change the direction for treatment of adult inmates whose needs might better be addressed in mental health settings than state prisons.
The executive summary states, “Many of the policy proposals in this report focus on improving community-based supervising, sanctions and services as well as other practices proven to reduce recidivism, which are essential to improving public safety.”
Governor Nathan Deal’s office released the 25-page report but no news conference was held. The release had a more subdued feeling than a public event last spring when the governor, lieutenant governor, house speaker, state Supreme Court chief justice, attorney general and other elected officials stepped to a podium to announce criminal justice reform.
Georgia spends more than $1 billion dollars per year on adult incarcerations. Maintaining state prisons is the second fastest growing segment of the state budget – behind only Medicaid – and by some estimates prison system expansion could cost the state another quarter billion dollars within five years. Georgia currently houses 55,000 adult inmates, most of whom are men.
The Georgia challenge is how to balance public safety, potentially revise sentencing structure, provide alternative sentencing resources and acknowledge cost considerations in such a way that the state is not considered soft on crime – especially important in a 2012 election year.
The special council recommended expansion of drug, mental health and veterans’ courts that could offer alternatives to incarceration, including day-reporting centers. More than 3,200 people whose only offense is personal drug possession are admitted to Georgia prisons each year. One-fourth of all admissions are for persons whose major need is mental health services.
The council said supervision for 156,000 adults sentenced to probation and 22,000 on parole after state prison terms also needs a closer look. Council members wrote that “supervision agencies do not have the resources required to supervise offenders adequately.” An electronic reporting pilot project is already being conducted this year with low-risk adult parolees.
Several recommendations largely fall along the lines of implementing ideas that make sense without needing revolutionary change to the overall criminal justice approach. For instance, the council said Georgia should increase the dollar value of felony shoplifting from $350 to $700. The felony threshold for some theft crimes could be tripled from $500 to $1,500.
The council also proposed decriminalization of minor traffic offenses; those would become violations and not misdemeanors. This would help to clear local court system calendars, reserving the court’s time for felony and other types of cases and saving taxpayer dollars.
There was a general consensus resources could be coordinated better on many levels to avoid duplication of effort, again to save time and resources.
Governor Deal congratulated the special council for delivering a “comprehensive, serious and well-crafted report” but he also acknowledged its recommendations are just “a starting point.” A bipartisan legislative committee will be charged with determining what if any part of the council’s work can be turned into legislation that will be palatable during an election year. Legislators return to Atlanta in January, although committees are already meeting on several topics.
Here is a link to the Georgia Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform complete report.
(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)
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