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Georgia State Inmates Backlog in Local Jails is Significantly Down

Mike Klein

Mike Klein

What you are about to read is a big deal:  Georgia has significantly reduced the number of state custody male inmates sitting in local county jails.  Georgia corrections commissioner Brian Owens made the announcement this week during a Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform meeting in Forsyth.  His comment so surprised judges, legislators, prosecutors and others that several let out a huge gasp.

“As a result of the legislation and your recommendations, today we have zero males … zero males … in county jails waiting to come into the state system,” Owens said.  “We have about 200 females but we’re going to address that come January and February.  We’ll be able to get the females out. That is huge to local budgets for our county sheriffs.”

County jails have historically been the default option when state probation detention centers are overcrowded.  County jails held 315 male state inmates and 302 females in July who were awaiting placement in a probation detention center.  Overflow issues were addressed last year by the Special Council and the 2012 General Assembly.  State law changed on July 1 to specify that offenders could spend no more than 180 days in a probation detention center.

This change pertains to felony offenders who were sentenced to not less than one year on probation or specific categories of misdemeanor offenders who subsequently violated probation terms.  After confinement for 180 days eligible offenders who are not considered a risk to public safety may be considered for transfer into probation and community supervision programs. Also, this pertains only to offenders who were awaiting placement in a probation detention center.  Local jails still hold some other state inmates.

This week’s Special Council meeting provided a glimpse into the implementation of reforms proposed one year ago and enacted by the 2012 General Assembly in House Bill 1176.  There has been substantial progress in electronic record keeping.  New substance abuse and mental health treatment centers and day reporting centers have opened.  A program to help long-term inmates transition back into the community will launch in January.

“Talking about electronic sentencing, today 156 of 159 counties are transmitting sentences electronically to the Department of Corrections which is huge, again, a direct result of 1176,” Owens said.  More than 5,660 state inmates from 110 counties had their sentences transmitted electronically to the state.  Forty-six additional counties have agreed to use electronic reporting while just three counties – Cobb, Fayette and Jefferson – are currently not participating,

Probation detention centers are being redesigned.  This year the Appling, Pike and Turner county detention centers were converted into residential substance abuse treatment centers.  Appling and Turner can also provide mental health services for men.

The number of day reporting centers that provide more intense substance abuse treatment at a lower cost than incarceration will expand to 15 next month when a Lookout Mountain circuit center opens in north Georgia.  Corrections opened a day reporting center in July in Savannah.  Offenders who do not comply with day reporting requirements are considered to be in violation of probation terms and they could find themselves returned to incarceration.

House Bill 1176, the criminal justice reform law, reduced some drug possession and theft maximum sentences from 60 to 38 months as of July 1 this year, the date legislation became effective.  On its own initiative the parole board reviewed 600 earlier sentences for possible reductions. State parole board member Robert E. Keller told the Council, “We changed our decisions in 191 offenders which netted a savings of 32,000 bed days and about $1.5 million.”

Last year the Special Council asked that the state rethink how it transitions long-term inmates before they are released back into the community.  Two years ago 7,495 offenders released from prisons had no parole officer; 1,592 had no probation officer. These are so-called max out prisoners who served the longest possible sentences after their convictions.  Next month about 1,000 long-term prisoners who are scheduled for release before March 2014 will be assigned to a program to help prepare them for transition back into the real world.

Parole officers will focus on their housing and employment options along with health and other services offenders will require upon their final release.   Eligible offenders will be moved from prisons into transition centers during the final 12 months of incarceration.  Offenders will sleep at the transition centers, be required to work and will surrender their earnings to cover costs.  This is a dramatic step forward from receiving $25 and a bus ticket upon release.

Next Thursday the Special Council is expected to vote on a new package of juvenile justice and adult corrections proposals.  Those will be sent to Governor Nathan Deal and it is anticipated that the 2013 General Assembly will consider and implement some new proposals.  The juvenile system, for example, has not been seriously overhauled in about 25 years.  The proposals will not be set in stone; legislators will be able to modify ideas submitted by the Special Council.

(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.)

(This article was republished by Right on Crime which is a project of the Texas Public Policy Foundation.)






December 6, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | Leave a comment

Waiting for Georgia Corrections Reform Recommendations …

Mike Klein

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)

November 15, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pew Center Targets Recidivism; Georgia Launches Corrections Reform

Mike Klein

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.

Adam Gelb

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)

April 18, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Governor Deal Pledges to Save HOPE, Reform Corrections, Limit Spending

Mike Klein

Moments after Nathan Deal became the 82nd Governor of Georgia on Monday afternoon he predicted a more limited government that perhaps chooses different missions by vowing, “We must justify every cent that government extracts from our society.”

Deal’s inaugural address was predictably short on program specifics.  Those begin to come this week when the governor delivers his State of the State address and releases his first proposed budget, both on Wednesday.  His address focused on statewide unemployment, corrections system reform, education, the HOPE scholarship, transportation, water and health care.

“The lingering pain of this great recession in which we are still engulfed has underscored the urgency of re-examining the role of government in our lives,” said Deal, who served nine terms in Congress.  “The evolution of society has infringed on much of the elbow room that our ancestors enjoyed, and government has been asked to regulate our actions as we bump into each other in our frantic search for success.

“In times of economic prosperity we often ignore the costs and inconvenience of governmental paternalism.  But in times such as these with more than one of every ten of our employable citizens out of work we must justify every cent that government extracts from our economy.”

Deal said one-in-13 Georgians is under correctional control, meaning in custody, on probation or on parole, and he said it costs $3 million per day to operate the Department of Corrections.  “Yet every day criminals continue to inflict violence on our citizens and an alarming number of the perpetrators are juveniles,” the governor said.

“College students should be concerned about their grades, not whether they are going to be mugged on their way home from class.  Visitors to our cities should be treated as welcome guests, and protected.  Families should not live in fear of gang violence or drive-by shootings. But most of all, our dedicated law enforcement officers must not be target for criminals.  Anyone who harms one of them harms us all.”

Georgia Governor Nathan Deal

The former state legislator from Gainesville promised violent and repeat offenders that, “We will make you pay for your crimes.  For other offenders who want to change their lives, we will provide the opportunity to do so with day reporting centers, drug, DUI and mental health courts, and expanded probation and treatment options.

“As a state we cannot afford to have so many of our citizens waste their lives because of addictions,” Deal said.  “It is draining our state treasury and it is depleting our work force.”

Deal praised his predecessors and “dedicated teachers and educators” but he noted Georgia K-12 public education “has failed to make the progress that we need.  This failure is a stain on our efforts to recruit businesses to our state and is a contributing factor to the frightening crime statistics that I previously mentioned.  High dropout rates and low graduation percentages are incompatible with my vision for the future of the state of Georgia.”

Deal sought to assure families who wonder about the long-term future of the financially challenged HOPE scholarship program.  “”I was not elected to make easy decisions but difficult ones,” Deal said.  “In this legislative session we will save HOPE for future generations.”

Deal emphasized the Savannah and Brunswick ports are Georgia’s link to an ever expanding international trade community.  “We will do our part to deepen the Savannah port in order to accommodate the larger vessels that will soon pass through the Panama Canal, but we must do more.  Our rail capacity and cargo routes must be improved and expanded.  We must not miss this opportunity to provide jobs for Georgians.”

The governor described Atlanta metro highway congestion as “a deterrent to job growth in the region.  If we do not solve this problem soon we will lose the businesses who want to expand or locate in our state.”

Deal also inherits the Tri-State Water War.  A federal court judge ruled Alabama, Florida and Georgia must reach agreement before July 2012 or Congress will impose a solution.  All three states have new Republican governors, but that does not ensure agreement.  All three states had Republican governors during Sonny Perdue’s eight years as Georgia governor.

Deal vowed the state will continue to negotiate but will also develop regional reservoirs.  “We are blessed with abundant water resources and we must use them wisely.”

The new governor was blunt in his assessment of federal health care policy, widely known as Obamacare.   “As governor I will resist the efforts of the federal government to mandate its solutions on our people, our businesses and our state government.”

The new governor assumed office three days after a special council issued the state’s most dramatic tax reform proposals in eighty years.  Legislative approval would reduce personal and corporate income tax rates, and make significant changes to sales taxes on products and services, including collection of sales tax on groceries.  He did not mention the tax proposals.

State of Georgia Seal

Fiscal issues will dominate every General Assembly conversation this session and dictate which priorities prevail.  The next state budget faces an estimated $2 billion shortfall.  Georgia will lose $1.2 billion in federal stimulus funds.  It must also repay $425 million to the federal government because the state has been borrowing federal dollars to write unemployment checks.

Deal inherits an economy that is taking tentative steps to rebound from recession.   Georgia’s 10.1% unemployment rate is still several percentage points higher than the national average.  State government revenue that plunged over two fiscal years has begun to recover with seven consecutive monthly year-to-year increases, but improvement will not balance the budget.

Deal returned to his leaner, more focused model of government in concluding remarks.  “State government should not be expected to provide for us what we can provide for ourselves,” he said. “Let us refocus state government on its core responsibilities and relieve our taxpayers of unnecessary programs.  Let us be frugal and wise.  Let us restore the confidence of our citizens in a government that is limited and efficient.”

The inaugural ceremony was held at the House chamber at the State Capitol.  Overnight snow and ice that paralyzed Georgia caused cancellation of the planned outside ceremony, a morning church service and the Philips Arena evening gala in downtown Atlanta.

Deal was joined by his wife Sandra.  Their daughter Katie sang “Georgia On My Mind.”  Their son, Hall County Superior Court Judge Jason Deal, administered the 47-word oath of office.  Dignitaries in the state House chamber included U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson, Congressman Phil Gingrey and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed.

Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.

January 10, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment