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Getting Smart on Georgia Crime Moves Beyond Getting Tough

MIKE KLEIN

MIKE KLEIN

Not long ago, the national philosophy behind criminal justice policy was to lock offenders away and teach them a lesson. This was popular with politicians who found that it played well before crowds and it was popular in communities where prisons and jails created jobs. Some folks even seemed to celebrate the idea that prisons were real hellholes.

This philosophy worked great if you did not care about creating better citizens in people who had made a mistake but could be rehabilitated; if you did not want to think about the effect of mingling juveniles with hardened adult criminals; if you did not care about the spiraling cost to support the expansion of incarceration — just a few of many things you could avoid thinking about.

No one reason caused inmate populations to expand but many contributed: declining family structures; more children with one biological parent or none; the failure of families to emphasize learning; neighborhoods without jobs; the widespread availability of illegal narcotics; the dependency society mindset in which government is expected to pay everyone’s bills; you can go on and on.

Some insightful people began to understand that criminal justice expenditures could not expand forever. Ohio did some good work in the mid-1990s but the reform movement really took hold after Texas began to implement community-based alternatives to incarceration about seven years ago.

Nobody has ever accused Texas of being soft on crime. The Texas Public Policy Foundation was a real reform driver, as was the Public Safety Performance Project at the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Today, the evidence points to Georgia as a national leader.

Five years ago, Georgia was on the cusp of a criminal justice meltdown. The state’s adult prison population had doubled over two decades to 56,000 inmates and the incarceration budget had doubled to $1 billion per year. That did not include the costs to administer probation and parole.  And it was projected to get worse: The prison system would need to house 60,000 inmates by 2016, costing $264 million for new prison construction. All the annual operational costs were above and beyond the projected capital investment.

Prisons and jails were overcrowded and budgets were blowing up. It was ugly.

This week, however, encouraging trends were reported at the criminal justice reform council meeting in Atlanta:

  • The state has reduced its adult prison population to 52,000 inmates.
  • The number of annual new prison commitments is down from 21,600 in 2009 to 18,000 last year.
  • Statewide, total jail populations are down from 44,000 four years ago to about 37,000 today.
  • Non-violent, low-risk offenders who would have been in prison now have a better chance to succeed in community-based programs.

There is more: By getting state-sentenced inmates out of county jails more quickly, the state reduced its annual payments to county jailers from $25 million in FY 2012 to just $40,000 in FY 2014, which ended in June. This was possible, in part, because every county now files its sentencing papers electronically, saving days, weeks, even months.

At the same time, thanks to new juvenile community-based alternative programs, state juvenile courts reduced new youth secure detention commitments by 62 percent between October 2013 and June 2014. More than 1,600 youths were kept out of secure detention.

The sea change that made changes like this possible started with Governor Nathan Deal in 2011, when his executive order created a criminal justice reform council to differentiate between serious, hardened felons and people who pose little or no risk to public safety. The phrase that you often hear is to create a distinction between people who scare us and people who make us mad. Is a non-violent personal drug addict better off in substance abuse care or bunking with a killer?

The encouraging news you have read about here should not be interpreted as more than a very optimistic report about changes that will take years to implement. Indeed, the Council continues to wrestle with how to reintegrate released former offenders back into the community. Putting them away is hard, giving them the best possible chance to succeed once they return home is even more complicated.

That said, there is nothing wrong with pausing to celebrate something that is working.

(Mike Klein is a journalist and media executive who has held leadership positions with the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, Georgia Public Broadcasting and CNN where he was Vice President of News Production.  Learn more about Mike at LinkedIn.)

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September 17, 2014 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

Astonishing Early Results from Georgia Juvenile Justice Reform

MIKE KLEIN

MIKE KLEIN

Buoyed by freshly funded incarceration alternatives, Georgia reduced new juvenile justice detention commitments by an astonishing 62 percent during the nine month period that ended in June. As a result, the average daily secure population rate is also trending down as is the length of time juveniles are waiting for a detention center placement.

“While it’s still early, we feel great about where we are,” Department of Juvenile Justice assistant deputy commissioner Joe Vignati told the Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform on Tuesday, September 9. This was the Council’s first meeting since May although several committees met during the summer.

DJJ Deputy Commissioner Carl Brown led off with an historical overview of Georgia juvenile justice that recalled a $300 million annual budget in 2012, nearly two thirds of that amount spent on secure detention at $90,000 per bed per year. Brown said traditionally 25 percent of youths were incarcerated for low level offenses, misdemeanors and status offenses. Forty percent were assessed as being low risk to re-offend.

Juvenile justice was the 2012 Criminal Justice Reform Council’s principal focus and it resulted in a new way of thinking about kids. Juveniles who commit the most serious crimes and who pose a threat to public safety should be incarcerated and dealt with appropriately, but there would be new community-based program options for kids who primarily are just dysfunctional, sometimes severely so, but without criminal intentions.

House Bill 242 created a framework for alternative programs. Governor Nathan Deal’s FY 2014-15 budgets provided more than $13 million to help create community-based services. The first measurement is the nine-month period that began in October 2013 and ended in June. “Here’s the big bang, what have we achieved?” said DJJ assistant deputy commissioner Joe Vignati.

During the 2012 calendar year juvenile court judges sentenced 2,603 youths to incarceration. That became the base year with an objective goal to reduce the number by 15 percent or 390 fewer juveniles sentenced to incarceration between October 2013 and June 2014. Instead of 15 percent it was 62 percent and instead of 390 fewer sentences it was 1,614 fewer sentences.

Youths incarcerated at secure facilities declined 14 percent from 1,673 in October 2013 to 1,440 in June 2014. The number of youths awaiting a detention bed placement was down from 269 at the beginning of October 2013 to 157 at the end of June 2014, and it continues to improve.

“As of yesterday it’s my understanding that we have only 39 youth awaiting placement,” Vignati told the Council. “This is important because we make sure we are getting kids where they need to be. Also, now we are able to operate safe, secure facilities. We don’t have overcrowding.”

To learn more, watch these YouTube Channel videos recorded at the meeting:

Juvenile Justice Presentation, Part One

Juvenile Justice Presentation, Part Two

(Mike Klein is a journalist and media executive who has held leadership positions with the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, Georgia Public Broadcasting and CNN where he was Vice President of News Production.  Learn more about Mike at LinkedIn.)

September 17, 2014 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment