The most sweeping juvenile justice reform legislation since Jimmy Carter was Governor sailed through the Georgia House on Wednesday afternoon, passing 172-0. It moves to the Senate where passage is predicted and then on to Governor Nathan Deal who supports the legislation. Leaders from both parties spoke favorably in the well before the overwhelming vote.
House Bill 641 would update Georgia statutes to make certain the state is in federal compliance. Like ongoing adult criminal justice reform, the legislation moves the state toward provision of more services to juveniles who need personal treatment and less reliance on incarceration when juveniles are not considered a threat to themselves, their families or public safety.
A series of short presentations from bipartisan speakers outlined updates in the 245 pages of HB 641. There would be changes to policies that regulate foster care, permanent placement hearings, adoption codes, family mitigation hearings, children who are status offenders, the rights of natural parents and the creation of a new commission that would routinely review the changes so that another four decades does not pass before this subject is broached.
Exactly what it would cost to implement HB 641 remains uncertain, so the bill received strong bipartisan support largely on financial faith. The bill would not take effect until next year, and not until the 2013 General Assembly receives a financial impact report and authorizes funds.
House Judiciary Chairman Wendell Willard spoke to the point: “We’ve had several people address this. We’ve had a great deal of discussion. Nobody can say specifically what the cost is. I’ve asked the departments, the prosecuting attorneys, (and) the defense counsel to give me some figures. They come in all over the range.”
Willard assured the House, “We are going to do an empirical study as best as we can between now and next January and come back to this General Assembly with a full explanation of cost.
The bill calls for some things we have not had, that is, any state case because of delinquency issues must be done through a prosecuting attorney,” Willard said. “It also provides that the child, just like for adults, will be represented by an attorney.”
The bill also mandates that juveniles would receive risk assessments. “I say to you we have maybe some additional costs upfront but the big thing is going to be the savings we realize over the years by not having these children always locked up and the fact that we may save some childrens’ lives as far as their futures,” Willard said. That is a part of it, a big part.”
This week the Georgia Public Policy Foundation published an issues analysis: “Five Essential Principles for Juvenile Justice Reform.” The Foundation focused on less restrictive placements for low-risk offenders, comprehensive risk assessments for all youths, more family focused resolutions, informal processing for first-time and low-risk offenders and, a recommendation that pre-adjudication detention of juveniles for only those who present a safety risk.
Juvenile justice reform has been a significant priority for several state-based organizations including Just Georgia, the Georgia Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, Voices for Georgia’s Children and the Barton Child Law and Policy Clinic at the Emory University School of Law.
(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)
Thursday morning a House and Senate special committee will gather to discuss mission creep. That is not the official name of the hearing, also known as the first hearing to consider criminal justice reform legislation, but it might just as well have been advertised as mission creep.
Georgia criminal justice reform legislation is many things, nearly all of them positive, but it also is an example of mission creep. To understand whether House Bill 1176 hit or missed the mark, let’s begin with the assignment given to last year’s Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform:
“Address the growth of the state’s prison population, contain corrections costs and increase efficiencies and effectiveness that result in better offender management; Improve public safety by reinvesting a portion of the savings into strategies that reduce crime and recidivism; and, Hold offenders accountable by strengthening community-based supervision, sanctions and services.” That language is directly taken from the Special Council’s final report.
Nothing in that challenge asked the Special Council to consider child abuse statutes, change state rape laws or address whether religious clergy should be required to report crimes that parishioners admit during confession. However, all of that is found in the current HB 1176.
Georgia is not a criminal justice reform trendsetter. Many states – some here in the southeast – have enacted or considered changes to reduce prison populations, address recidivism, improve community treatment programs, reduce state costs and ease the burden on crowded courts.
There might be many good reasons to consider child abuse statutes, change state rape laws or address whether religious clergy should be required to report crimes that parishioners admit during confession. But using HB 1176 as the vehicle for those goals is mission creep. Those ideas – which might be very good ideas – need to be considered on their own merits.
The principles behind criminal justice reform include incarcerating those people who can do us harm, treating those people who need help more than they need incarceration, keeping the public safe and reinvesting prison system dollars into treatment programs. This is quite a leap from do the crime, do the time principles that caused prison overcrowding here and nationally.
Criminal justice reform asks us to make a fairly significant philosophical leap: Will we continue to treat the people who can do us harm the same as those who merely need our help, or, will we create new approaches that incarcerate the people who have done the most harm, and likely would do so again, but create new paths for those who most often do harm only to themselves?
Some of these numbers are frightening. Georgia’s state prison population – men and women – has grown from fewer than 30,000 two decades ago to 44,000 in the year 2000 to 56,000 today with projections of 60,000 within four years if we make no fundamental systemic changes. We add about 1,000 new people to the prison population each year, above and beyond those who are released.
The number of Georgians on parole –22,000 – is up 9 percent and the number of Georgians on probation –156,000 – is up 22 percent since the year 2000. One-in-13 Georgia adults is behind bars, on parole or on probation – the highest percentage in the nation. The annual cost to fund our penitentiaries has swollen from $500 million per year two decades ago to almost $1.1 billion.
Our state prisons operate at 107 percent capacity. At any moment several hundred more inmates are held in local jails because there is no room for them in the state penal system. Sure, we can build more prisons, but it costs $80 million to build a prison. It costs millions more dollars every year to feed and clothe inmates and pay for their health care, millions more to hire staff to run those prisons.
And what do we get for all this spending? We get a 30 percent failure rate – measured as the percentage of released inmates who are back behind bars within three years. We spend $1.1 billion per year to sustain a 30 percent failure rate. A private sector business would not last very long if its products routinely posted a 30 percent failure rate.
Thursday morning the House and Senate special committee that sits down to discuss criminal justice reform should begin by deciding how to trim out the mission creep add-ons that do not directly address the urgent need we have to adopt meaningful criminal justice reform in Georgia.
Criminal justice reform is arguably the most serious work of the 2012 General Assembly. It needs to remain on-point and focused. Other good ideas should be handled on their own merits as separate legislation.
(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)
Criminal justice reform legislation introduced this week contains highly anticipated alternatives to incarceration such as expanded drug treatment courts, along with probation and parole revisions, and modifications to burglary, forgery and theft statues. We knew that was coming.
Some sections of House Bill 1176 that were not expected include extending the statute of limitations on prosecution of child abuse cases – this was not a specific focus of work done last year by the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform — and religious clergy might well be surprised to learn they are mentioned in the criminal justice reform conversation.
Gov. Nathan Deal’s office already signaled the current bill is not good enough. “It doesn’t achieve exactly what we wanted,” said press secretary Stephanie Mayfield. “One of our main things is to spend taxpayer dollars wisely. The initial bill isn’t something in its current form that we think does that to its best ability but again, it’s in the initial stages. It is a starting point.” The legislation was submitted without a fiscal note.
HB 1176 will be vetted by a joint committee of senators and representatives. It can be amended in hearings. The bill is not hogtied by the Day 30 Crossover rule next Wednesday. The first committee meeting could occur toward the end of this week, but none is currently announced.
There are no child abuse recommendations in the Special Council final report and definitely no members of the clergy. The bill states “a member of the clergy shall not be required to report child abuse received solely from a perpetrator of the child abuse through confession or other similar communication required to be kept confidential under church doctrine or practice.”
HB 1176 also states, “When a clergy member receives information about child abuse from any source, the clergy member shall comply with reporting requirements … even though the clergy member may have also received a report of child abuse from the confession of the perpetrator.”
The consensus of people we spoke with on background is that the legislation submitted Monday needs work so what we see now is not likely to be what we will see later. Here are comparisons of some but not all Special Council recommendations and the proposed HB 1176 legislation:
Drug and Mental Health Courts: The Council recommended expansion of alternative treatment courts. The bill discusses how to certify existing drug courts, create new ones, and also how to pay for their staffing and associated costs. State funds, other public funds, federal grants and even donated dollars could help defray drug and mental health court costs. Risk and needs assessment of offenders are emphasized in language that pertains to drug and mental health courts. Gov. Deal included millions of dollars to expand drug courts in his fiscal 2013 budget.
Drug Crimes: Some drug crimes would be prosecuted based on the types of narcotics and the weight of the seized evidence. This approach would make a distinction between personal users whose problems are addiction and traffickers who are dealing narcotics. The Council approach was adopted in the legislation. Some prosecutors are skeptical about changes to drug laws.
Mandatory Minimum Safety Valve: The Council recommended that judges be allowed to depart from mandatory minimum sentences in some drug trafficking cases, with the court required to state the circumstances and the reasons for its decision. This idea is not included in HR 1176.
Theft, Forgery and Burglary: The Council recommended and the legislation contains new felony thresholds in these three categories. To cite one example, the Council proposed an increase in the felony shoplifting level from $300 to $750. The bill as proposed says theft valued at less than $1,000 would be considered a misdemeanor. Several burglary categories would make distinctions between residential and other kinds of burglaries, and even time of day.
Rape Laws: The legislation would remove the words “prosecution for the crime of forcible rape must be commenced within 15 years after the commission of the crime” from current state code. There was no Council recommendation about changes to rape prosecution laws. Later, the bill says cruelty to children, rape, aggravated sodomy, child molestation, enticing a child for indecent purposes and incest could be prosecuted at any time when the child is under 16 years old on the date of the violation.
Personal Criminal Records: HB 1176 contains extensive discussion about restriction of access to and disclosure of individual criminal history records. Again, the Council made no recommendations.
Performance Incentive Pilot Projects: Special Council members proposed that the state and up to 10 local communities create pilot projects to reduce recidivism. Communities that returned fewer people to state prisons would be able to receive a share of state dollars not spent on incarceration. Performance incentive pilot projects are not included in HB 1176. However, this idea might not require legislation and could possibly be done administratively.
Pre-Sentence Risk Assessment: The Council emphasized risk assessment. Legislation would create a five-year window beginning in January, 2013 to start and assess pilot projects. If the concept proves successful a statewide model would be created in July, 2018. The focus would be on “the lowest risk, prison bound, nonviolent drug and property defendants.”
Parole and Probation: The Council proposed and the legislation includes several ideas to improve supervision of offenders in the community. Mandatory supervision would be required for all offenders who serve their maximum prison sentence. Earned compliance credits would allow parolees and probationers to reduce their supervision time when they satisfy all terms of their supervision. Parole and probation officers would be permitted to impose additional sanctions on individuals who violate the terms of their supervision. These ideas are aimed at reducing recidivism.
Electronic Surveillance: Eligible probationers – the state has 156,000 – and eligible parolees – the state has 22,000 — would increasingly find themselves tethered to electronic surveillance, including global positioning satellite systems. Alternative methods of tracking non-violent, low-risk probationers and parolees were emphasized by the Council and included in the legislation.
Minor Traffic Offenses: The Council proposed decriminalizing minor traffic offenses that could be satisfied by paying a fine. The rationale was it would relieve pressure on the courts so judges could concentrate on more significant cases. This idea is not in the bill.
The criminal justice reform conversation remains fluid. It would not be surprising if stakeholders move ahead on areas where they agree and defer other decisions until next year.
(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)
The Georgia House is expected to vote Wednesday on juvenile justice reform legislation that is every bit as significant as a similar adult criminal justice reform initiative, but it has received less public scrutiny. The bill appears to have significant bipartisan support in the House and Senate. One big proposal would mandate that county prosecutors be assigned to every juvenile court.
“We are making substantial changes in the way in which we handle problem children in Georgia,” House Judiciary Chair Rep. Wendell Willard said this past weekend during the 21st annual Georgia Bar Media & Judiciary conference in Atlanta. “One of the things that I’ve made sure is in there is that before the state can have any child placed in its custody there is going to be what we call a risk assessment to find out what are the problems that the child is facing.”
Willard introduced HB 641 with Republican and Democratic co-sponsors. Four public groups – Just Georgia, the Georgia Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, Voices for Georgia’s Children, and the Barton Child Law and Policy Clinic at Emory University – have worked for several years to update the decades old state juvenile justice law. There is a similar bill in the Senate.
The Georgia Public Policy Foundation has prepared a position paper, “Five Essential Principles for Georgia’s Juvenile Justice System.” The report will be published Tuesday, February 28.
Georgia currently has some 50,000 youths in detention or under supervision. Willard told the state bar meeting that improved risk assessment tools would allow for better decisions about who should be incarcerated and who would benefit more from other treatment options.
Continuing his explanation about assessment, Willard said, “Are there problems emotionally? Is he or she being physically abused or are they being sexually abused? A lot of them are. They get in trouble, sometimes it’s what is going on in their home life or other situations. Let’s start looking at finding a way to deal with the problem other than just locking up.”
Stronger emphasis on alternative treatment methods instead of mandatory incarceration closely matches work being done in the adult system which is trying to address who scares us and should be behind bars or, who just needs our help because they are not a public safety threat.
The juvenile justice reform bill sponsored by House Judiciary chair Willard was submitted in the 2011 Legislature. Two days of hearings were held late last summer when the legislators were in Atlanta for the redistricting session. At 245 pages, the bill is big on words and new ideas.
One proposed revision would require the District Attorney’s office in every county to handle all Juvenile Court prosecutions. “Under current practices that is not what happens in a majority of jurisdictions,” said Douglas County District Attorney David McDade who is also President of the Georgia District Attorneys’ Association. McDade also appeared at the weekend state Bar panel.
Some Georgia juvenile courts hire prosecutors, some use District Attorney or other court staff and, McDade said, some larger circuits have dedicated full-time prosecutors. “In an ideal world the state would fund a statewide prosecution model for every circuit,” McDade said in an email. “Unfortunately, the state currently provides no funding for Juvenile Court prosecution.” HB 641 also does not provide specific state dollars to fund new prosecutors.
Alternative treatment models are a recurring them in recommendations made last November by the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform, which considered only the adult system. One of the Council findings, however, was there should be more focus on Georgia youth who run afoul of the law – some in serious ways and some not so seriously. Willard said adult criminal justice reform legislation is “nearly ready.”
An executive summary of the juvenile justice legislation written by Just Georgia discusses the dozens of proposed modifications and updates. Just Georgia noted current state law contains no definition of abuse against a minor; the new law would define abuse “to include emotional abuse and prenatal abuse, in addition to physical abuse and sexual abuse and exploitation.”
In a world of acronyms, here’s another that would become more familiar lexicon: CHINS stands for children in need of services. Disruptive actions by these children include status offenses that would not be crimes if committed by adults, such as skipping school, running away from home, violating curfew and smoking tobacco, and otherwise being unruly or disobedient.
Is bad behavior a criminal activity? Under current law CHINS are dealt with as delinquents and might be subject to incarceration. New proposals would incorporate a wide range of alternative treatment options for not just the child, but also the child’s family when there is one present.
Other proposed changes would reduce the maximum period of time before placement hearings for children under the age of seven. Currently hearings must take place within twelve months after a child is placed into foster care; the proposal would reduce that to nine months.
Click here to read HB 641, the juvenile justice reform legislation. Click here for Just Georgia. Click here for Georgia Appleseed Center for Law and Justice. Click here for Voices for Georgia’s Children. Click here for the Barton Child Law and Policy Clinic at the Emory University School of Law.
(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)
Georgia’s high octane tax reform initiative flamed out last year. A moderate approach seems possible this year and likely soon with the Legislature having completed half of its calendar.
“I call state income tax the opiate of state government,” says Jonathan Williams, director of the tax and fiscal policy task force at the American Legislative Exchange Council. “When times are good personal income tax revenue and corporate income tax revenue skyrocket. When times are bad it plummets down the drain.”
Governor Nathan Deal described his preliminary reform agenda in early January: Elimination of the sales tax used on energy in manufacturing, sales and use tax exemptions for construction materials used in major regional projects and changes to state jobs tax credits programs. The Governor did not propose reducing the 6 percent maximum personal income tax rate.
Personal income tax generates more than half of all state revenue. Proponents contend a tax rate reduction would make the state more competitive against nearby states like Florida and Tennessee that levy no personal income tax. Opponents contend personal income tax rates play a minor role in economic competitiveness.
Nine states currently levy no state income tax, down from 20 states at its highest 50 years ago. Many states were rethinking how to position personal income taxes against all other revenue sources even before the recent recession tossed their budgets into chaos.
Williams says Georgia is falling behind and needs to make some moves. “Georgia has done well over the years in terms of competitiveness but there are (states) on each side of your border, one to the north and one to the south that don’t have personal income taxes,” Williams said. “When you’re sandwiched between states like that it’s really dangerous.”
Williams is co-author of “Rich States, Poor States,” the annual ALEC analysis that ranks states according to the impact of tax strategies on their economic competitiveness. Georgia fell to 11th nationally last year after three consecutive years at eighth. Williams suggested that the newest ranking due this spring could once again find Georgia slipping on the list.
“When we work with legislators we try to remind them, you do not make policy changes in a vacuum,” Williams told a meeting of Americans for Prosperity – Georgia chapter members in Atlanta. “Every time you change your policy for better or worse you are impacting your region, how you compete with your regional states and how you compete all across the country.
“You’ve fallen out of the Top Ten not necessarily because you’ve done that many things wrong. It’s just that other states are doing things better,” Williams said. “They are growing while Georgia is in a way staying stagnant and by staying stagnant it is kind of falling down the ladder in terms of competitiveness.”
“Six percent on corporate and personal is not bad,” Williams said. “You’re certainly not in the neighborhood of New York (12.6 percent) and California (10.3 percent) and some of those states, but when you’re sandwiched between two zeroes, 6 percent looks awfully high.
“As nice as the quality of life is here, as nice as a lot of the amenities that you have in the state (are), that’s a pretty direct incentive. Why would you locate in a 6 percent state when you have 0 percent right across the border?”
(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)
Georgia voters – the people whose tax dollars pay the bills at every public school system statewide – are one step closer toward being allowed to decide whether the state should have the authority to create and fund charter schools over the opposition of local school boards.
Wednesday afternoon the state House approved HR 1162 by a slim 123 – 48 margin. That is three votes more than the measure needed for two-thirds super majority passage and 13 more than a different version received during the House floor vote two weeks ago. The bill moves to the Senate where an education committee hearing is scheduled for 1:00pm Thursday.
“There have been a lot of people working hard and their efforts paid off,” said Tony Roberts, CEO at the Georgia Charter Schools Association. “This is certainly just the first battle in the war for our children to have options and choices in education which they so desperately need.”
The debate has pitted school choice advocates against a Georgia Supreme Court opinion last May that overturned the state charter schools commission. It polarized political parties with Republicans almost unanimously in support of state alternate authorization and Democrats almost unanimously in support of exclusive local school board authorization of new charters.
The test vote two weeks ago defined what HR 1162 would need to achieve two-thirds House passage. Critics demanded a much more specific definition of charter schools. That definition is now in the bill; state charter schools have been defined as public schools that are not private sectarian, religious or for-profit schools or private educational institutions.
Representatives who opposed the resolution two weeks ago also wanted assurance that local education dollars would not be used to fund state charter schools. “They will be funded only with state monies,” Speaker Pro Tem and HR 1162 sponsor Jan Jones said Wednesday.
Floor debate was scheduled for 90 minutes but lasted less than an hour. Six Democrats – three in support and three still opposed — and House Majority Whip Larry O’Neal all spoke at length about whether local school boards control public education – as the Supreme Court opinion stated last May – or whether the schools are a partnership between the state and local boards.
O’Neal said, “This is bigger than charter schools. Make no mistake; when courts invent their own words like exclusive and sole they are indeed making law. I urge you to vote yes and move this measure across the hall and one step closer to the people to let them make the decision.”
Democrat Kathy Ashe voted no two weeks ago. Over the past two weeks she spoke strongly about revisions. Her floor remarks Wednesday were forceful. “Sausage making is not always pretty but I come to the well today to say this process has worked,” Ashe said.
“I hope we talk long and hard about how charter schools are just a tiny portion of the public school system,” Ashe said. “Yes, charter schools are public schools. I hope we talk long and hard about what’s on the ballot because I want folks in Georgia to know there are going to be two ways to charter schools.
“The way it’s going to happen most frequently is with a local board saying, yes, let’s enter into a contract but in the rare occasion that there is a subject area, if there is a geographic reason to bring different school systems together to create a very special charter school, it may be that a secondary authorizer is the way to go.
“I comfortably ask you to vote for this version of 1162,” Ashe said. “Sometimes this process is ugly. Sometimes we get all fired up and say things we don’t really mean but in the long run, this process is the best way we know how to make law and 1162 is a good example of coming together for the students of Georgia.”
Her fellow Democrat Rashad Taylor was unconvinced: “This bill is about giving a new authority a new power to create schools in communities that have otherwise rejected those applications,” Taylor said. “There is nothing in this resolution, nothing that guarantees that public school funding will not decrease because of charter schools. Mr. Speaker, 1162 is a one-size fits all strategy that really doesn’t fit anything in Georgia.”
Democrat Scott Holcomb – like Ashe — voted against the resolution two weeks ago. Holcomb co-authored a Democratic alternative that incorporated the public charter schools definition and state dollars only guarantees. Wednesday he spoke in favor of the revised resolution.
“I understand many will vote against this on principle. I very much respect that,” Holcomb said. “As the parent of a public school student I want to make sure the public schools are not harmed or defunded because of this resolution. I feel comfortable that will not occur.
“It is right to want to keep control of local schools in the hands of locally elected school boards. Historically that has been our practice in Georgia,” Holcomb added. “But it is also right to want energized and motivated people to get involved in making our schools much more than satisfying the constitutional standard of an adequate public education.”
Supporters were thrilled but cautious afterward. “Now on to the Senate,” said Virginia Galloway, state director for the Americans for Prosperity Georgia chapter which supported HR 1162 passage. “We really appreciate the bipartisan support that it took to get this bill passed.”
The Georgia School Boards Association, Georgia School Superintendents Association, and the Georgia PTA oppose the charter schools constitutional amendment. Roberts at the Charter Schools Association said the Senate Democratic caucus opposes the amendment. Two-thirds approval by the full Senate would put the constitutional amendment onto the November ballot.
(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)
Georgia’s criminal justice reform initiative has flown stealth-like under the radar since November when a special council delivered its report. That will change soon, perhaps this week, with the introduction of legislation that will propose the greatest change since get tough policies enacted in the 1980’s and 90’s caused the Georgia prison population to swell beyond its walls.
What you should expect from legislation – we are hearing it could be almost 100 pages long – was the focus of an American Legislative Exchange Council criminal justice reform panel held last week in Atlanta. “Eighty million dollars to build one prison in Georgia – that is the cost of bricks and mortar, not the cost of staffing,” said Georgia Court of Appeals Judge Michael Boggs.
“This may have come about as the result of a fiscal crisis in this nation and in this state. Maybe that’s why we got where we got, because we recognize we don’t have the money,” said Boggs, who serves on the state special council. “But at the end of the day, these are laudable goals.”
The goals to which Boggs referred are primarily these: Slow down exponential growth in the state prison population, treat rather than incarcerate people who have addiction issues but not criminal issues, do both in such a way that public safety is not threatened, reinvest dollars that are currently going into prisons into treatment programs, and then continually re-evaluate it.
(Click here to review the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform report.)
Criminal justice system reform has become one of the better examples of national political bi-partisanship as states realize budgets can no longer accommodate ever expanding corrections costs. Georgia’s annual expense has swollen from $500 million per year to $1.1 billion in 20 years. Almost 20 states have enacted or are currently considering substantial reforms.
ALEC, the Pew Center on the States, the National Conference of State Legislatures and other public policy organizations are all focused intently on criminal justice. Last week the Georgia Public Policy Foundation published a state-focused issues analysis that is available online.
Criminal justice reform has its own rock stars – Texas Republican state Rep. Jerry Madden and his Democratic counterpart Sen. John Whitmire. Starting five years ago they put conventional partisan politics aside to craft a new corrections model that enabled Texas to slow down prison population growth and reduce anticipated state outlays by hundreds of millions of dollars.
ALEC brought Madden to Atlanta – one of several visits he has made since last year to confer with state legislators, the judicial branch and others who are designing Georgia justice reform.
“How many of you would rather spend money on things like schools and highways or tax reduction or something other than spending it on building prisons?” Madden said. “It is easier for a Red State to do this than a Blue State. It’s easier because nobody thinks Georgia is soft on crime. I don’t believe it and nationally nobody is going to believe it.” (Madden discussed criminal justice reform at the 2010 Public Policy Foundation legislative briefing conference.)
Georgia’s prison population – less than 30,000 twenty years ago – is anticipated to reach at least 60,000 within five years if nothing about the state criminal justice system changes. Prison system expense is the second fastest growing segment of the state budget behind Medicaid. “This is sucking up a lot of our money,” state Sen. Bill Cowsert told the ALEC gathering.
Two popular get-tough ideas are being challenged; A) Do the time, do the crime, and; B) Lock them up, throw away the key. That is because another idea – you can rehabilitate almost anyone by having them do time – has proven wrong. “They don’t learn their lesson,” Cowsert said. “It is not working to just lock them up and throw away the key for a certain length of time.”
Georgia has a 30 percent recidivism rate – almost one-third of released inmates return to prison within three years of their release date. Or to consider that from another angle, our $1.1 billion annual corrections investment has a 30 percent failure rate. Recidivism rates are lower – between 7 and 13 percent – when approved offenders participate in accountability courts that are most often used with personal drug use offenders who are not considered a threat.
“We all know you don’t throw water on a grease fire,” Rep Jay Neal told the ALEC audience. “Now we know you don’t throw the addict into prison and think you’re going to correct behavior.” Mandatory treatment combined with very strict – sometimes electronic — monitoring and drug testing are possible options with incarceration still on the table for noncompliant offenders.
Georgia currently has just 33 accountability courts; one reason is because public and private sector treatment options are insufficient. “You can’t have a felony post-adjudication drug court without having treatment options,” said Judge Boggs. “In rural Georgia, that’s hard to come by.”
The state also has just 13 day reporting centers capable of serving about 200 people each.
Governor Nathan Deal’s criminal justice reform cards are on the table in his proposed budget: $35.2 million for additional prison beds, $10 million for accountability courts expansion, $5.7 million to convert three pre-release centers to residential substance abuse treatment centers and $1.4 million to fund additional parole officers.
Much greater use of parole is another idea whose time might have come. Georgia has 22,000 on parole, dramatically fewer than its 156,000 on probation population. Mandatory sentences that must be fully served are the reason for the disparity. But in the wake of do the crime, do the time sentencing inmates have been routinely released without post-prison support.
“We lock them up with criminals and when they get out five years later they’re still addicted, except now they have a felony on their record which makes it more difficult for them,” Neal said, “and they spend the last five years in graduate school learning how to be a true criminal, and they weren’t a criminal when we sent them there. Then we wonder why the recidivism rate continues to be a problem.”
Neal said slightly reducing some prison sentences and combining that with mandatory parole would be preferable to simply releasing inmates into the community “with no guidance, no direction, no accountability, no supervision, you’re just turned loose.”
The special council on criminal justice reform worked for six months. “Criminal justice reform is not a one-time fix in this session of the General Assembly,” Judge Boggs acknowledged. “It is an ongoing process.” In fact, Governor Deal kept the council intact for further unspecified work ahead.
“It’s probably not going to be a package where everybody is going to say I like everything in here,” state Rep. Neal said. “We have to be careful that we don’t let individuals who don’t like one piece convince us that because of that one piece it’s not a good package.”
“The last thing we want to do is be light or easy on crime,” state Sen. Cowsert said. “We have to keep public safety as our top priority. We want to lower the crime rate in the process and we want to do this in a fiscally responsible manner.”
(Mike Klein will moderate a criminal justice reform conversation on Saturday, February 25 at the Georgia Bar Media and Judiciary Conference in Atlanta. Panelists include state Supreme Court Chief Justice Carol Hunstein, state Rep. Wendell Willard and Douglas County District Attorney David McDade.)
Promising that Georgia would never knowingly turn a pig into a horse, House Majority Whip Edward Lindsey suggested Thursday that two changes to a charter schools constitutional amendment resolution might help secure bipartisan support. HR 1162 requires a two-thirds majority vote in the House, and then it would be sent to the Senate.
At issue is whether voters in November will be asked to decide whether the state shall become an alternate authorizer for charter schools after they are initially turned down by a local board of education, and, how to fund those new schools.
During remarks that lasted just a few minutes, Lindsey told a House education hearing that the state’s official definition of a charter school would be placed into HR 1162 – something the resolution currently lacks — which became a priority for critics who contend it could give the state too much power to authorize new charter schools and fund them with local dollars.
“No one has to worry that someone is going to later come around and try to turn a pig into a horse,” Lindsey said, “call something that clearly shouldn’t be a charter school, a charter school. We thought it was important to allay concerns like that.” House education chair Rep. Brooks Coleman asked Lindsey for brief remarks after a day of conjecture about possible compromise.
Lindsey said another change would “make sure folks are reassured that local dollars will not either directly or indirectly be used to support a school that is chartered by the state of Georgia.”
Lindsey said legislators “from both sides of the aisle” helped to craft language “so that local systems can be reassured, if the state should elect to charter a school, those funds will be from the state of Georgia and will not either directly or indirectly be pulled from local school systems.” There was no discussion about where Georgia would find those state funds.
Conjecture about HR 1162 revisions has circulated since last week when the legislation lost a House floor vote 110 – 62, needing 120 votes for a two-thirds super majority to pass. The vote was largely along party lines with heavy Republican support and heavy Democratic opposition.
Democrats offered their own constitutional amendment resolution – HR 1335 – which had a fairly timid public hearing on Wednesday afternoon. Democratic Rep. Scott Holcomb testified that he voted against HR 1162 last week because, “What we advocate is that if the state wants to have state charter schools, we think that’s great, but they should fund them.” Holcomb was a principle behind HR 1335 and he was seated in the committee room Thursday when Lindsey discussed compromise.
Holcomb released this statement on Friday morning: “Democrats are proud to enforce limits on the state with regard to charter schools. The original legislation gave the state unrestrained powers. This puts sensible restrictions on how we operate. We also unequivocally require that if the state wants to create charter schools – they must pay for them. Under the changes, no local funding can be reduced.”
Sources familiar with the plan say a new version of HR 1162 is now expected on the House floor next week. “Someone asked me when we should expect to bring the bill to the floor,” Lindsey said on Thursday. “The simple answer is, we’ll bring it to the floor when we are comfortable that we have the language right and that we have the 120 plus votes.”
(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)
A behind-the-scenes coalition that believes the U.S. Supreme Court will overturn the federal health care reform law is working on a new health insurance strategy for Georgia.
Almost certainly, this summer’s biggest headline will be the Supreme Court decision to uphold or overturn the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act which President Barack Obama’s administration counts as one of its finest achievements. Two federal appellate courts upheld the law and one rejected it. Supreme Court arguments are scheduled for the final week of March.
Federal law trumps state law, so nothing in the evolving state strategy could be implemented in Georgia if the Supreme Court upholds the federal health care reform law. The Georgia Public Policy Foundation has hosted meetings of interested parties working on state health insurance reform options, but the Foundation has not assisted with drafting legislation nor has it taken a position on possible legislation.
A staggering 1.8 million Georgians have no health insurance. They are not in group plans. They do not have individual plans. One-in-five men, women and children living in Georgia have no health insurance.
Coalition principles include restructuring the private market to increase competition and improve portability, protection against loss of coverage, and improved affordability for people and small businesses. A core strategy is the expansion of defined contribution plans administered by employers.
Employers who cannot afford to offer health insurance will be able to make a defined contribution to a tax-free Health Reimbursement Account or HRA. Employees may use these pre-tax dollars to pay insurance premiums. Pre-tax dollars in health savings accounts, another type of tax free account, could be used for deductible co-pay charges and a wide variety of wellness programs.
Consumers who do not have access to employer health plans would be allowed to deduct 100 percent of health insurance premium expense from their state income tax. Current law does not allow for that deduction. In addition, the proposal would allow small businesses to take advantage of “list billing” that would allow employees to pay for their individual health policy premiums with pre-tax dollars.
All of these efforts address the tax inequity of the current system that critics contend needlessly places the cost of health insurance beyond the reach of many families.
Small firm employers often find it almost impossible to offer comprehensive major medical insurance benefits. The strategy proposes several ideas. Companies with 10 or fewer employees could receive state tax credits for each employee who is enrolled 12 consecutive months in a major medical program. Credits would be available for three years. The entire program would end after ten years.
The strategy includes a focus on keeping currently insured Georgians insured. Small businesses and their employees would have the same access and protections available to large firms and their employees. People who lose jobs after age 55 would have better access to COBRA extended coverage. They could purchase extended coverage until Medicare eligibility at age 65.
Another idea addresses health insurance access for employees who leave small firms. Currently small firm employees are eligible for just three months while large firm employees can extend and pay for insurance coverage for 18 months. The proposal would equalize both groups at 18 months.
Another effort would focus on providing access to primary care for the uninsured. A new “Georgia Charity Care Network Tax Credit” would be similar to the existing private school tax credit. The credit could be taken by an individual or corporation that makes a cash contribution to an approved charity health care network. There would be maximum annual contribution levels and the program would be capped at $2 million maximum per year for three years.
Federal health care reform requires that Georgia must create an insurance marketplace or the federal government will impose one in 2014. A state health insurance advisory committee report published in December said the state should opt for its own program, but it stopped short of saying the General Assembly should begin to plan for that program now. Georgia is waiting on the Supreme Court ruling.
The coalition believes a private, free market health exchange would provide all the benefits of a government-run model, but without the drawbacks. Georgia, which leads the nation in health information technology, is home to several companies already providing similar services.
A regional health insurance idea would enable Georgia to partner with four or more states to create a large private marketplace. Major medical and group insurance carriers whose policies are approved in any member state would be able to offer those policies in other member states. Georgia’s insurance commissioner would be authorized to explore major medical partnerships with other states. Any plan approved by a partner state would be available to consumers in the other partner states.
One feature of federal health care reform enables children to remain on their parents’ health insurance policies until age 26. The Georgia twist would revise that to “tax dependent” children. The distinction is that insurance eligible young adults must be dependents, not just grown children who have begun their independent lives, except where they are riding on parents’ health insurance policies.
Several other strategies are being considered. One would create a high risk pool for people with pre-existing conditions, which would help stabilize the individual and small group market. Pre-existing conditions restrictions would be standardized to not more than 12 months in group and individual plans. Expanded physician choice options would benefit health care consumers.
Overall, the emerging Georgia health insurance strategy is not an attempt at medical care reform – who gets medical treatment, how much they get and who decides their treatment. All of the ideas currently being discussed pertain only to insurance factors. By one estimate, it might be possible to reduce the number of uninsured, non-Medicaid eligible Georgians from 1.8 million to 600,000.
(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)
Two weeks ago hope and change seemed possible. Two thousand students, parents and start-up charter school supporters gathered on a sunny winter morning outside the State Capitol to rally on behalf of the principle that equal opportunity begins in school. Now we know that too few inside the great stone building cared to hear their message. Entrenched status quo has won out over enlightenment.
On Wednesday the state House rejected HR 1162 which sought to place a constitutional amendment question on the November ballot that would ask voters: “Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow state or local approval of public charter schools upon the request of local communities?” The measure fell ten votes short of the 120 two-thirds majority it needed.
Georgia is precariously close to earning a reputation – if it has not already earned that onerous reputation – as a state that prefers education entitlement to innovation.
The establishment of charter schools – as one vehicle to improve education everywhere, for all kids –was forcefully championed by former President Bill Clinton. During the Clinton administration charters grew from literally just a handful to thousands nationwide. And whatever else you might think about President Barack Obama, his administration has been an equally forceful supporter of charter schools.
Georgia has 1.65 million public school students. Fewer than 30,000 attend start-up charter schools. Fewer than 4 percent attend any charter school. Whatever threat charter schools pose to traditional public education, it is hard to imagine that their success would topple the existing business.
And isn’t that what this is really all about, the public money of public education. Public education spending — K-12 and higher education — accounts for more than half of the state’s $18.6 billion budget. Local property tax dollars add billions more dollars to public education spending. Money = control. Control = power. Nobody in power willingly cedes power. It is a rule of politics and war: Never cede power or surrender territory.
Therefore, we have wealthy public school districts, whose superintendents earn hundreds of thousands of dollars per year, arguing that the establishment of a few start-up charter schools constitutes a threat to the financial monopoly that controls public education. The monopoly is a partnership of convenience between school boards, teacher organizations and politicians who support status quo.
At least temporarily, they have won. What now? One of the bill sponsors moved to reconsider the motion, so that means the House will have at least one more chance to reverse course.
Start-up charter school supporters, thousands of families, Governor Nathan Deal’s office and others with a dog in this fight have worked on the constitutional amendment strategy since May when the Georgia Supreme Court overturned the state charter schools commission. Now they have only whatever time remains in the current General Assembly, probably two months, to address this problem.
The 2008 Legislature was correct when it created the state charter schools commission as an alternate authorizer after local school boards reject charter school applications. The Supreme Court was wrong. And the 2012 Legislature, to date, is wrong to reject the constitutional amendment option that would enable voters to decide the question.
(Update: Thursday morning the House voted 114 – 49 to reconsider which means HR 1162 will receive a second vote.)
(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)
- Why School Teachers Are No Longer “Sage on the Stage”
- ALEC: Here’s How Georgia Could Improve Competitiveness
- “Data Is An Onion … You Have to Begin to Peel Back the Onion”
- Big Brother Knows Best Mentality Works Against School Choice
- Georgia’s Intense Focus on Children Sold for Sexual Services
- This Should be Obvious: Fix Families First to Fix Kids
- Broken Families … Parents Without Skills … Kids in Juvenile Justice
- Digital Learning, Re-Entry Lead List of Criminal Justice Priorities
- Second Adult Criminal Justice Reform Bill Becomes Law
- Pew Poll: Solid Real World Support for Juvenile Justice Reform
- Georgia Public Schools Employ More Staff Than Teachers
- Georgia House Passes Juvenile Justice Bill 173-0