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Speaker Ralston: State Prison Inmate Population Can Be Reduced 50%

Mike Klein

Georgia House Speaker David Ralston predicted significant criminal justice reform could reduce the state adult prison population by perhaps half and he said a resolution to HOPE scholarship funding might be near.  Ralston discussed two of the state’s most pressing financial challenges during a sold-out Atlanta Press Club luncheon on Thursday at The Commerce Club.

Ralston spoke about criminal justice reform one day after Governor Nathan Deal said a special council will make recommendations to reduce the $1 billion per year that Georgia now spends on adult corrections.  The Governor opened the door to serious consideration of mental health, DUI and drug courts along with day-reporting centers and mandatory sentencing changes.

Georgia currently incarcerates about 60,000 adults.  Governor Deal did not estimate how many non-violent offenders could be handled in other settings when he spoke Wednesday but one day later Ralston said, “I think with the right reforms we could reduce our prison population by half.  It’s long past due and I look forward to that conversation moving forward.”

The House Speaker also said, “We’re frankly locking a lot of people up who really don’t need to be in prison because they are more of a threat to themselves than they are to others.  It’s time now to have the courage to say we’re going in a new direction.  We’re going in a new direction.”

Speaker David Ralston

Ralston described the HOPE scholarship as a “victim of its own success” which was negatively impacted by more bright kids, tuition increases and Georgia Lottery revenue that flattened out.  Expenses already are greater than revenue and reserves could be exhausted next year.

HOPE was conceived to help place more students in higher education but Ralston said, “We added a lot of bells and whistles that weren’t there in 1992 and the bill has come due.”  Pre-K programs may be among those bells and whistles; they were not in the original legislation.

Ralston did not predict how HOPE would be saved or when a proposal would be ready.  “I think it’s going to be much, much sooner rather than later …We are very, very close to being able to announce a proposal that I think Georgians will recognize immediately is realistic and is fair.”

Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.


February 17, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | Leave a comment

State Board Expands One Online School and Approves Two New Ones

Mike Klein

Georgia students will have expanded online learning opportunities next fall after the Georgia Charter Schools Commission approved three charters on Thursday.  The state’s largest virtual school will expand its high school curriculum and two new schools were re-approved to open.

The board also voted to reduce the percentage of money withheld from charter schools to support commission staffing and programs.  Executive director Mark Peevy predicted as many as 16,500 students will enroll in brick-and-mortar or virtual charter schools next fall.  The majority, some 11,000, would participate in exclusively online learning programs.

The board voted new charters for Georgia Cyber Academy, which is the state’s largest virtual school with 6,500 students this year, and the brick-and-mortar Odyssey School.  Georgia Cyber previously operated as Odyssey’s online learning option but now they will become independent schools.  Commission board approval to separate Georgia Cyber and Odyssey was unanimous.

Georgia Cyber expects to enroll 8,500 students next fall with 6,500 in elementary and middle school courses.  The remainder would be freshman and sophomore high school students.  The Academy will add junior and senior courses in later years when it enrolls up to 16,500 students.

Georgia Cyber head of school Matt Arkin said the Academy had 15,000 applications this year above those from returning students.  Georgia Cyber maintains a 1,000-student waiting list.

The commission board also re-approved charters for two schools that withdrew from the state education market last summer because they said state payment dollars were insufficient.

Provost Academy Georgia planned to open as the state’s first virtual high school serving up to 800 students last fall.  Provost predicted it would enroll 2,700 students within five years.

Kaplan Academy of Georgia planned to enroll up to 960 students last fall with half in grades 6-8 and the remainder in high school.  Kaplan predicted it would enroll 5,575 within five years.

State payments would have been $3,400 per student which Provost and Kaplan said was less than operating costs.  In December the commission board voted to reimburse $5,800 per pupil starting next fall.   The schools submitted new budgets in line with the larger reimbursement.

Finally, the commission reduced the percentage schools are charged to support GCSC staff and programs.  Legislation that created the commission allows for up to 3% of per pupil funding to be withheld from payments to schools.  The board reduced that percentage to not more than 2% next year.  Peevy said new hires will increase next year’s budget from $700,000 to $850,000.

Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.

February 17, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Criminal Justice Reform Will Focus on Prison Alternatives, Less Spending

Mike Klein

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.

February 17, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , | Leave a comment