Next month the Georgia legislature will begin to consider whether substance abusers who are not a public safety risk should receive a stay out of jail card. How lawmakers decide the question could slow down runaway costs and impact state corrections policy for decades.
Last month the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform said options – notably, more drug courts and treatment plus more day reporting centers — could reduce state prison population growth. Drug courts are part of an accountability sentencing movement that includes mental health courts and veterans’ courts. Here is what the council said about substance abuse:
“In 2010, Georgia courts sent more than 5,000 lower-risk drug and property offenders to prison who have never been to prison before, accounting for 25 percent of all admissions last year. Looking more closely at drug admissions, more than 3,200 offenders are admitted to prison each year on a drug possession conviction (as opposed to a sales or trafficking conviction), and two-thirds of these inmates are assessed as being a lower-risk to re-offend.”
Harder-on-crime ideas took hold in the early 1990s. The number of Georgia inmates doubled over 20 years and grew 35 percent since 2000 to 56,000 today. As incarceration soared so did budgets; Georgia spends above $1 billion per year on adult corrections, up from $490 million in 1990. Including pardons and parole and probation and the annual cost is closer to $1.5 billion.
Georgia’s inmate population grows 6-to-8 percent annually. Special council member and state Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver said that is “simply not sustainable.” Oliver added, “We spend $13 per day on drug court offenders and approximately $48 per day on individuals in prison. We have better recidivism rates on drug court offenders. That is compelling to me.”
In August, the National Conference of State Legislatures said inmates incarcerated for drug offenses are 20 percent of state prison populations nationwide and more than half of all inmates are abusers or drug dependents. The NCSL report was compiled in a partnership with the Pew Center on the States Public Safety Performance Project. Pew is also consulting with Georgia.
Governor Nathan Deal named Atlanta Superior Court Judge Todd Markle, his former executive counsel, to chair the special council. Recently the Policy Foundation asked Markle about prison time vs. drug courts and treatment for drug offenders who are not considered a safety risk.
“You have to consider whether what we’ve done for 20-to-30 years — locking people up for drug offenses — is the best way to treat those folks. We know a lot more about addictions and behavior issues than we did years ago. We know a lot of these addiction best practices can work. People philosophically have to get over the idea that people who have drug addictions are criminals. In a lot of cases, we’re going to need to address these as health issues.”
The special council reported Georgia has 33 drug courts that cover less than 50 percent of the state’s counties and serve fewer than 3,000 offenders. The state operates 13 day reporting centers and just three probation substance treatment centers. That suggests a big opportunity exists to catch up with states that already expanded drug courts and other treatment options.
Texas increased alternative program funds in 2007. Kentucky and South Carolina approved probation and treatment for low-risk substance abusers last year. California’s successful San Francisco pilot program started in 2005 was expanded statewide in 2009. The Kansas plan adopted in 2003 includes residential treatment settings and stiff sanctions for new violations.
“This is an opportunity to address the demand side of drug addiction and for those who have an addiction, to really get themselves sober and not continue to offend,” said Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Carol Hunstein, who served on the criminal justice special council.
Georgia judicial circuits can expand drug courts without legislation. The special council model would re-direct dollars saved in the penitentiary system to provide for courts and treatment. Legislation would be needed to change criminality levels based on the weight of illegal drugs.
“You cannot build drug courts from the top down,” said Waycross Superior Court Judge Michael Boggs, who also is a council member. “You have to build from the bottom up. It is meaningless for me to go to the southwestern judicial circuit and advocate that their judges start a drug court if they have no meaningful way to deliver the services.”
The special council estimated that $264 million might be saved if the state can avoid new prison construction for at least four years. This thought from special council chair Judge Markle: “If we try to kick this down the road where would we come up with that money? Even we were in better economic times, I’m not sure we could come up with the money.”
Whatever emerges from the General Assembly will likely be a first step. Governor Deal said the special council will remain in place and he described its work as just a starting point.
“Will a majority of what the Council recommended pass this legislative session? Probably not but I think the discussion will begin and I hope it will be an educational process for legislators,” said Chief Justice Hunstein. “We want our communities to be safer. We want to reduce recidivism.”
(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)
Georgia school choice advocates are not going down without a fight. Some are going back to the legislative table and some are taking to the streets. On the other side of the coin, there are those who believe the Georgia Supreme Court got it right in Monday’s split decision opinion that sidelined the state charter schools commission.
Late Monday afternoon we learned a Senate sub-committee will be named to study the Supreme Court decision and propose fixes, perhaps this summer. “The thing we are counting on is the special session,” said Tony Roberts, executive director of the Georgia Charter Schools Association. “That comes up in August.”
The year’s second General Assembly session could become hyper-hectic when lawmakers return to Atlanta to redraw legislative district lines, possibly try tax reform again, and now, just perhaps, an attempt to address charter schools questions created by the Supreme Court ruling.
And there are several questions, including how to keep funds flowing to existing schools and the impact on new schools that were scheduled to open this fall. The state commission planned to have 17 schools operating with as many as 16,500 students starting in August. Notably, the majority opinion written by Chief Justice Carol W. Hunstein contains no effective date.
Supporters predict thousands will descend on the Washington Street side of the State Capitol on Tuesday morning to protest Monday’s 4-3 decision. Governor Nathan Deal is in Europe on a trade mission and the General Assembly is out of town but protestors, no doubt, will be easily heard at the Supreme Court which is just across the street from the Capitol.
Earlier, Roberts at GCSA described the decision as “bad news for thousands of children and parents in Georgia who hoped for a brighter future with their children in a Commission charter school. This is a case where the majority is NOT right. The minority opinion of the Supreme Court contained in the 75 pages of dissenting opinion is the one that is right.”
Schools are asking, what to do next? “That’s the $64,000 question,” said Matt Arkin, head of school at Georgia Cyber Academy which has 6,500 online learning students. GCA was approved to become a state commission charter school this fall. “Until we hear otherwise we’re going to continue with our plans. The ruling today certainly has not changed that commitment.”
Monday’s opinion – filed seven months after oral arguments – said the General Assembly overstepped its bounds when it passed a 2008 state charter schools commission bill that was signed into law by Governor Sonny Perdue. The Supreme Court decision means state charters would not receive funding this fall, and perhaps sooner.
Mark Peevy, executive director of the Georgia Charter Schools Commission said his office is coordinating with the offices of Governor Deal and Attorney General Sam Olens, along with the State Board of Education, to understand the ruling and mitigate negative impacts.
“We will be working on a solution to help our current schools bridge the gap until we have that fix in place.” Peevy estimated that could cost $30 million-to-$40 million. Peevy admitted he does not have a great answer for parents who wonder what’s next. “The parent has to take a look at what they want to see happen with their child and move forward with those options.”
While crestfallen school choice and charter school supporters re-group, others view the majority opinion written by Chief Justice Carol Hunstein as confirmation that House Bill 881 got it wrong three years ago.
“One thing that does seem clear is the Supreme Court has held the General Assembly may not create its own charter schools for the general K-12 population,” said attorney Tom Cox, who represented DeKalb County and the Atlanta Public Schools before the state Supreme Court.
“This has never been about the wisdom and viability of charter schools, at least speaking for my clients, Atlanta and DeKalb. They have approved and authorized and are currently operating within their districts more charter schools than any other district in Georgia,” Cox said. “This has always been about who makes the decision about which new charter schools will be approved.”
Georgia joins a short list of states whose highest courts rejected the creation of a state charter schools commission. The list consists of just Georgia and Florida. A challenge to the Florida Schools of Excellence closed the state charter commission closed before any schools opened.
Arkin at Georgia Cyber Academy remains optimistic. “Every state that ever had the appetite to do this has eventually done it. This is probably a hiccup toward the eventual solution. Now we just need to wait for some direction from the state Board of Education and from the governor to help us all make sure our students don’t get penalized.”
(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)
The Georgia Supreme Court decision that struck down the state’s charter school commission is a long-awaited opinion that seems likely to throw thousands of students into education limbo and dismantle a growing network of existing and approved charter schools.
The Supreme Court ruled 4-3 in favor of the challenge by seven public school systems to a 2008 state law that created the Georgia Charter Schools Commission. The law gave the GCSC the authority to authorize and fund charter schools with state and local dollars. Some schools that received state commission charters were initially turned down by local boards of education.
It is now apparent the Supreme Court has been deeply divided since oral arguments last October. Predictions of a quick ruling before year-end vanished. The Court took the highly unusual step in March to announce it would delay its ruling with no date specified. The review lasted seven months.
The majority opinion focused on a strict interpretation of “special schools” which the 1983 state Constitution defined as schools established to help students with special needs, for example, blind, deaf and vocational or adult students. The 2008 law sought to expand “special schools” to include charter schools which did not exist when the Constitution was amended 28 years ago.
“Labeling a commission charter school as ‘special’ does not make it so when the students who attend locally-controlled schools are no less special than those enrolled in commission charter schools and the subjects taught at commission charter schools are no more special than the subjects that may be available at locally-controlled schools.”
The majority opinion underscored a strict, traditional view of local control over school systems:
“Because our constitution embodies the fundamental principle of exclusive local control of general primary and secondary (“K-12″) public education and the Act clearly and palpably violates (the State Constitution) by authorizing a State commission to establish competing State-created general K-12 schools under the guise of being “special schools,” we reverse.”
The Commission would have enrolled up to 16,500 students in 17 schools this fall. After the ruling, state Schools Superintendent John Barge said his office will begin to examine “what flexibility can be offered for these schools.”
Justice David E. Nahmias wrote the 74-page primary dissent:
“Today four judges have wiped away a small but important effort to improve public education in Georgia – an effort that reflects not only the education policy of this State’s elected representatives but also the national education policy of the Obama administration. That result is unnecessary, and it is unfortunate for Georgia’s children, particularly those already enrolled and thriving in state charter schools.”
The dissent also took strong exception to the majority opinion view of local control:
“Moreover, local boards of education – entities that are not even mentioned in the Constitution until 1945 – have never had and do not today have ‘exclusive control over general K-12 public education,’ because that control has always been shared with and regulated by the General Assembly and, since 1870, by the State Board of Education and State Superintendent as well.”
The dissent continued, “Thus, understood in the true historical context, commission charter schools are simply the latest iteration of ‘special schools’ that have long been created by the General Assembly outside the ‘common’ local school systems in Georgia. The majority may be able to change our law, but it cannot change our history.”
Hunstein was joined in the majority by Justices Robert Benham, P. Harris Hines and Hugh Thompson. Nahmias was joined in the minority by Justices George Carley and Harold D. Melton.
Melton quoted directly from the Charter Schools Commission Act in a second dissent that noted the 2008 General Assembly sought to create “access to a wide variety of high-quality educational options for all students regardless of disability, race or socioeconomic status, including those students who have struggled in a traditional public school setting.”
Melton wrote the law specifically referred to “providing the highest level of public education to all students, including, but not limited to, low-income, low-performing, gifted and underserved student populations and to students with special needs.”
All Georgia charters are public schools. The first Georgia charter schools law passed in 1993 and was modified five years later. Under the 1998 law, state or local boards could authorize charter schools. Most charters are brick-and-mortar schools; some are online learning models. Georgia has more than 60,000 students in charter schools.
The 2008 law was the first update in ten years and it caused a ruckus. The new legislation enabled petitioners who were turned down by local school boards to appeal to a new state commission. Local school districts lose funds that follow students to state charter schools. This change coincided with the rapid expansion of online learning companies whose products compete with local school districts.
The majority opinion said very little about redirection of state and local education dollars, even though that has been hotly debated and was widely considered to be the real reason for the lawsuit filed by Gwinnett, Atlanta, DeKalb and four other school districts. The majority’s 24-page ruling focused almost entirely on historical and current definitions of special schools.
Writing the dissent, Nahmias said, “Because the majority evidently can find no traction in the local systems’ attack on the funding scheme … as the ground for striking down the statute, the majority must rely on the ‘special schools’ argument, which has the consequence of nullifying any state charter schools established under the 1998 Act.”
Ironically, Georgia public education innovation in the charter schools sector was one reason the state received a $400 million Race to the Top grant from President Barack Obama’s administration. Now the state Supreme Court decision means charter commission schools will lose tens of millions of dollars. They will be forced to find a new lifeline or perhaps cease to exist.
(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)
Georgia lawmakers introduced 945 bills this year. One that passed will fast track review of the state’s $1 billion per year corrections system costs with a concentration on how to reduce existing state prison populations and slow their growth without impacting public safety.
So many Georgia adults are under state corrections system jurisdiction that their number would fill the Georgia Dome three times. Or if you are a University of Georgia Bulldogs fan …that would be two sold out Sanford Stadiums and 40,000 more folks tailgating.
The state’s new criminal justice reform commission will no doubt find an important resource in a study released by the Pew Center on the States. “State of Recidivism: The Revolving Door of America’s Prisons,” is the first ever state-by-state survey of adult recidivism. The study is a clarion call for state legislatures to recognize corrections costs are runaway budget busters.
“State of Recidivism” analysts requested three-year recidivism (return to prison) data from every state for adults released in 1999 and 2004. Thirty-three states including Georgia provided information for both years; 41 submitted only 2004 year data. Nine states submitted nothing.
“Our main goal and purpose was not to rank states and say who was doing a good or bad job but to elevate the discussion and to prompt state policy makers to begin asking questions,” said Adam Gelb, director of the Pew Center on the States public safety performance project. Pew found more than four in 10 adults return to prison within three years after their initial release.
Pew noted that Georgia’s three-year recidivism rates were below national averages. The state also ranked below national averages for adults returned to prison because they committed a new crime. All data is not equal, however, as Pew noted some states return adults to prison for certain kinds of violations whereas other states place them in alternative programs.
Last year’s Pew report “Prison Count 2010” examined how alternative strategies in some states contributed to the first reduction in state prisoner head count in 40 years. “State of Recidivism” was begun two years ago and it is the next building block in Pew public safety research.
Gelb is a former U.S. Senate judiciary staffer. He was back on Capitol Hill in February. Gelb told a Congressional sub-committee that adult corrections system spending by states is their second fastest growing budget category behind Medicaid. He said state corrections dollars account for one in every 14 general fund dollars, twice what their share was in the mid-1980s.
“Nearly 90 percent of the spending goes to prisons, even though two-thirds of the offender population is on probation or parole in the community,” Gelb told the Congressional subcommittee. “Five states now spend more on corrections than higher education. When you add in the federal and local incarceration costs, the tab surpasses $70 billion.”
Gelb described the Pew recidivism study as “a gargantuan task. We hoped that we would have seen a tangible drop in the overall rates but I think it turned out to be fairly flat. It had been so long since any national recidivism data was available that we didn’t know what to expect.”
Here’s what Pew found: Nationally, 45% of state inmates released in 1999 and 43% released in 1999 were back behind bars within three years. Georgia’s performance was better with 38% in 1999 and 34.8% in 2004. Pew said California skewed national statistics. California has more prisoners than any other state; it reported 61.1% and 57.8% recidivism rates.
Georgia has the nation’s ninth largest total population with 9.68 million but the fourth largest inmate population. One-in-13 adult Georgians is under corrections system jurisdiction, the worst rate in the nation. The state has 60,000 adults incarcerated in state facilities and 160,000 on probation or parole. Those totals do not include adults in local and county custody.
Escalation in the state prison population and costs to maintain the system were recognized when Governor Nathan Deal, Supreme Court Chief Justice Carol Hunstein and bipartisan state leaders announced criminal justice reform this spring. A new commission created by the General Assembly must report its findings before November 1.
The commission will examine options for non-violent offenders that include more probation, day reporting centers, new special courts for drug, DUI and mental health cases and other kinds of community-based programs that could be used when an individual poses no public safety risk.
This year Governor Deal sent a letter to Pew asking for research assistance. Gelb said Pew has requests from several states, but he added, “All the stars seem to be aligning in Georgia.”
(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)
Georgia will consider alternatives to incarceration of adult non-violent offenders in a sweeping criminal justice review announced Wednesday afternoon by Governor Nathan Deal. Reforms could include expanded drug, DUI and mental health courts, changes to sentencing laws, and alternatives to technical parole violations.
The governor announced the review at a capitol news conference. “Make no mistake. While this effort should ultimately uncover strategies that will save taxpayer dollars, first and foremost we are attacking the human cost of a society with too much crime, too many people behind bars, too many children growing up without a much needed parent and too many wasted lives.”
Deal stood with an historic coalition of executive, judicial and legislative leaders that included Supreme Court Chief Justice Carol Hunstein. “Our state can no longer afford to spend more than $1 billion a year to maintain the nation’s fourth highest incarceration rate,” Hunstein said. “I am confident that with this united front that you see here today we will accomplish our goals.”
Legislation was introduced Wednesday to create a Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform and a legislative special committee that would review council recommendations next January. This model should sound familiar; it was created last year to consider tax policy reform.
Chilling statistics illustrate the challenge. Deal said nationally one-in-100 adults is behind state prison or local jail bars, 3.6% of American children have a parent who is behind bars, and the trend is growing worse. Deal said one-in-77 adults was under correctional supervision during President Ronald Reagan’s first term; today the number is one-in-31 adults.
“In Georgia the numbers are even more troubling,” Deal said, citing one-in-13 Georgia adults in prison or jail, on probation or on parole. Georgia ranks tenth nationally in total population but it has the fourth largest incarceration population. The state prison population grew 4.6% during the past two years and 60,000 adults are behind bars.
“That growth has taken us to a place where our budgets no longer reflect our priorities,” Deal said. The governor said Georgia spends $3,800 dollars per year for each public school student, $6,800 per year for each university system student and $18,000 per year for each prison inmate. “That math simply does not work for Georgia,” Deal said.
Georgia joins southern states including Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana and South Carolina that have undertaken reforms. Texas shifted from incarceration for non-violent offenders to emphasis on community-based programs. Texas committed $241 million to new and expanded programs, but it saved up to $500 million in immediate prison construction costs and hundreds of millions more in subsequent years. Texas does not need new prison beds for at least four years.
Rep. Jay Neal introduced legislation to establish the Special Council and the legislative special committee. “For decades we’ve been treating the symptoms of our addictive and mentally ill prisoners, the symptoms being their criminal behavior, rather than treating the root cause of those symptoms. As a result, spending on corrections has skyrocketed.” Neal said the corrections budget is the second fastest growing in state government behind Medicaid.
Deal said as many as three-fourths of all Georgia inmates have drug and / or alcohol addiction. The question is whether to continue to incarcerate non-violent offenders or divert them away from the prison system and into special courts, day-reporting centers and community programs.
“We know that drug courts that are scattered throughout the state are successful,” Deal said. “We do know that DUI courts, of which we have a few, are being very well received and their results are tremendous. We know that mental health courts, of which we have far too few, are also addressing a very important issue.”
House Speaker David Ralston cautioned against thinking Georgia has gone “somehow soft on crime. Let me say that this is exercising sensible and responsible leadership.” Lt.Gov. Casey Cagle spoke in favor of expanded sentencing options for prosecutors and judges. He added, “In this debate let’s not forget the victims (and) their right to seek justice.”
Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.
Agency executives continued their march to the State Capitol on Wednesday for Senate – House budget hearings. They discussed shrinking their staffs, lacking resources to replace aging state patrol vehicles, closing adult corrections facilities, managing juvenile justice reform and much more.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Carol Hunstein brought it down to pens and pencils.
“We have given up a floor of office space, returned a much needed copy machine and had to rely on law students interning for academic credit to fill our various gaps in staffing the clerk’s office,” Hunstein said. “We also take every precaution possible to minimize waste from recycling old paper to recycling bindings that come in on pleadings and to soliciting pen and pencil donations.”
Pen and pencil donations? Really? That puts an entirely new light onto state agency budgets.
Wednesday morning’s session produced its lightest moment when Georgia State Patrol / Public Safety Commissioner Colonel Bill Hitchens was asked about the impact of no-texting while driving legislation. “I notice a lot of people got both hands in their lap a lot more than they used to,” Hitchens deadpanned.
Wednesday’s second day testimony before the Joint Appropriations Committee was mostly spot-on serious from agency executives who recognize the current landscape. “We understand what we are all facing,” new Juvenile Justice Commissioner Amy Howell told the committee.
Governor Nathan Deal embraced corrections reform in his Inaugural Address. Wednesday morning legislators heard Department of Corrections commissioner Brian Owens announce that Metro State Prison in DeKalb County and six adult pre-release centers will close over the next year. Howell said Juvenile Justice has shut down hundreds of beds and canceled service provider contracts throughout the state.
Brian Owens at Corrections and Amy Howell at Juvenile Justice are fighting evil twins: Adult and juvenile populations that increase while resources and budgets decrease.
“On any given day we serve 20,000 youth in the community and 2,000 youth in secure beds,” Howell said. Juvenile Justice currently operates six youth development centers with 674 beds and 22 youth detention centers with 1,287 beds. It provides resources to 92 courts and it runs a fully accredited school that provides basic and special education and vocational training.
Not quite two years ago, in May 2009, the federal government agreed to end its supervision of the state Department of Juvenile Justice. The Georgia program operates today within the guidelines of a memorandum the administration of Governor Sonny Perdue signed with the federal government.
Howell told legislators that juvenile justice state funding has been reduced by $76.5 million since fiscal 2009, although some of that gap was plugged with $28 million in stimulus funds. Four hundred youth detention beds were eliminated. Two youth facilities closed. Hundreds of staff lost their jobs. Governor Deal’s fiscal 2012 proposed budget would trim $15.8 million more from the $302 million current appropriation.
“With fewer resources available, the manner and environment in which DJJ serves youth has been altered,” Howell said. “In order to balance the interest of public safety and constitutionally secure facilities, DJJ must ensure that we are serving the right youth in the right place.”
Howell said new budget reductions will mean closing two more youth detention centers with 60 total beds. One-third of the $15.8 million will be saved with 112 personnel cuts. Paid overtime, eleven education positions and eleven administrative positions will be gone. Four contracts with community service providers were canceled in advance of the new budget.
Howell came prepared to propose and advocate for several short-term strategies, among them: New risk assessment tools to assist judges before juvenile sentencing, moving more youths from state facilities to community resources, and changing guidelines to provide flexibility for shorter or longer sentences. Longer term, Howell asked legislators to consider authorizing more beds at existing facilities when funds are available.
“Despite difficult times and difficult decisions, this is a manageable budget,” Howell said.
Juvenile detention and rehabilitation challenges are mirrored in the adult system which has 53,000 inmates, up from 46,000 in 2002. Three thousand inmates are being held in local custody until state beds are available. Another 154,000 are on probation. About 21,000 inmates enter the corrections system each year. The cost to maintain that system is slightly less than $1.1 billion per year.
“Twenty years ago, 15 years ago, we were in a lock them up and throw away the key mode,” Corrections Commissioner Owens told the committee. “Many of us remember that. It’s not just Georgia, the whole United States,” he said, recalling a movement toward three strikes, you’re out and stiffer mandatory sentences.
“I think the public is starting to get the fact that if we hold offenders accountable on the street, we provide them with addiction services, we provide them with mental health treatment, we drug test them every other day and hold them accountable, we make them pay restitution to victims, that’s what the public really wants.”
Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.
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