During the past five years there has been extensive discussion in Georgia and nationally about the relationship between prison costs and public safety. Texas and Kansas were the earliest states to enact reforms in 2007. Then the recession hit, inmate counts were viewed as budget busters and other states jumped aboard the reform wagon. Georgia passed significant new law this year and is in the earliest stages of implementation that will take years to evaluate.
Most analysis here and nationally focused on the growth in state inmate populations during the past two decades. That is because politically popular 1990s do-the-crime, do-the-time policies were enacted with faith in the idea that longer time served by bad people would reduce crime.
New research this month from the Pew Center on the States Public Safety Performance Project has concluded, “Experts differ on precise figures, but they generally conclude that the increased use of incarceration accounted for one-quarter to one-third of the crime drop in the 1990s.” States individually have to decide their own balance between some improvement and $10.4 billion in extra cost to state corrections systems.
What we know today – and it took almost two decades to figure this out – is a lot of people sent to prison were non-violent personal drug users who posed little threat to anyone else, or they were sick and needed medical help more than prison time. More states now understand they must decide whether drugs are a crime or an illness.
When you look closer at national data, inmate populations have sharply accelerated for longer than 30 years. The country had 320,000 state prisoners in 1980, about 740,000 in 1990 and that more than doubled to 1.543 million over the next 20 years ending in 2010, according to federal Bureau of Justice Statistics data.
You can go back farther and create an intriguing 1925 to 2010 comparison. Back in the middle of the Roaring 20’s the country had fewer than 92,000 state prisoners and a population of 115 million. If state prisoner and national populations had grown at identical percentage rates today we would have 1.945 billion people in the country. We are very good at locking up people.
Pew’s new report “Time Served: The High Cost, Low Return of Longer Prison Terms” studied data from 35 states including Georgia. Pew said time served by inmates released in 2009 was 36% longer than inmates released in 1990. Longer time served had huge financial impacts on state budgets. Pew says the extra cost in Georgia was $536 million. You can see their calculations here.
“It certainly is understandable that penalties are raised when society or policy makers don’t feel penalties reflect the seriousness of the offense,” said Adam Gelb, director of the Pew Public Safety Performance Project. “But most often that’s not been the driving factor. It was a sense that stiffer penalties would be effective at reducing those crimes.”
Average time served for all crimes increased most in Florida, up 166% compared to the 35-state average of 36%. Georgia was up 75% (sixth highest among 35 states) and North Carolina up 86% (third highest). In time served for violent crimes, Florida was up 137%, North Carolina up 55% (tied for sixth highest) and Georgia up 41% (11th highest) against a 37% average increase.
Drug sentence strategies and time served are an extreme conversation. At one end you have personal users. At the other end you have traffickers and manufacturers. Pew compared time served by the most serious offenders. Florida sentences were up 194%, Georgia was up 85% (fifth highest) and North Carolina up 38% (17th highest). Drug sentences served in Tennessee actually decreased by 9% during the twenty-year cycle.
Florida time served for property crimes grew by 181%, again the largest increase. Georgia was fifth highest at 68%. North Carolina’s increase was 20% and Tennessee sentences were 45% shorter.
Gelb said Pew’s research “reinforces the notion that state policy choices determine or drive the size and cost of state prison populations, not so much crime rates or broad demographic trends. These numbers go up or down based on how policy makers respond to situations rather than forces that are largely out of their control.”
The Department of Corrections says Georgia had 54,373 inmates on June 8 this year; that is up from 52,478 last year. Governor Nathan Deal signed a criminal justice reform law last month that emphasizes alternatives to incarceration for non-violent offenders.
Georgia prisons cost $1 billion a year; probation and parole services add another $400 million. Alternative court programs for mental health and some but not all drug offenders and other changes are predicted to save the state $264 million over the next four years. The belief is these changes can be made without compromising public safety.
Georgia criminal justice reform will extend beyond implementation of this year’s new law. The state Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform will reconvene this summer. Governor Deal has said the council will be asked for juvenile justice and code recommendations that could result in the state’s first comprehensive rewrite of those laws in several decades.
Pew analyzed National Corrections Reporting Program data voluntarily submitted by the states and verified by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Click here to read the Pew summary. Click here to read state fact sheets.
(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)
Sometime soon – maybe this week – Georgians will get their first glimpse at adult corrections reform ideas that are essential to restore fiscal sanity to runaway costs, maintain appropriate punishment for the crime and do both without sacrificing public safety. That’s a tall order.
A special council on criminal justice reform report that was due to Governor Nathan Deal on November 1st is still not public two weeks later. The date is less important than whether the council report contains recommendations that can be embraced by legislators during an election year. No one wants to campaign on the slogan, “I’m Soft on Crime!”
Political considerations aside, corrections reform must succeed. Failure is not an option.
Georgians have not forgotten the special council on tax reform. It was much heralded last year when council members traveled the state to conduct hearings that were attended by hundreds. Then in December 2010 the council delivered a thorough analysis laden with recommendations. Tax reform became road kill in April when doubts persisted about its financial impact. Less grand tax reform is possible when legislators return in January.
The special council on corrections reform has worked much more quietly for six months. Three senators, three representatives, judiciary members including Supreme Court Chief Justice Carol Hunstein, other appointees with legal discipline backgrounds and extensive staff have received counsel from the Pew Center on the States Public Safety Performance Project which has similar initiatives in 15 states.
Their task is complex: Redesign the components of an adult corrections system that includes the judiciary, state prisons for men and women, adult parole and adult probation. Georgia would like to shed an unfavorable distinction: It has a higher percentage of adults in prison, on parole or on probation than any other state in the nation. One-in-13 adults can find their names somewhere in the corrections system.
Financially, the state corrections budget to incarcerate some 55,000 inmates is about $1 billion per year and it is the second fastest growing state expense behind Medicaid. Adult, juvenile justice and parole state expenditures are some $1.5 billion per year.
Georgia’s incarcerated population has grown 30 percent since 2000. Adult prisons were at 107 percent capacity in September. Three thousand inmates are in local jails because state prisons have no available beds. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently reported federal immigration authorities might deport up to 1,250 inmates who are now held in state prisons.
One-in-four Georgia adults that entered the prison system last year was admitted for mental health reasons; there is a movement nationwide to treat these individuals in other settings.
Here are a few areas to consider when the council report is released: Does it recommend dramatic changes in sentencing options for non-violent offenders? Will the council push for the expansion of drug courts for addicted users who need professional treatment instead of jail time? Will it address changes for how to monitor 210,000 Georgians sentenced to probation? Will there be new ideas to slow explosive health care costs for elderly inmates?
Will there be a recommendation to provide judges with more overall sentencing discretion so they are not bound to inflexible mandates? Will adult probation and parole be more closely coordinated to avoid duplication of time and expense? Will the state embrace electronic reporting for non-violent, eligible parolees rather than require case worker visits? Will the state take steps to reduce the number of state prisoners who are being held in local jails?
These issues are every bit as complex as tax reform and no less critical to our future.
(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)
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