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Hundreds in Georgia Prisons Remain Locked Up After Earning Parole

Mike Klein

Georgia penitentiaries continue to feed, clothe and pay medical expenses for hundreds of inmates who were approved for parole but cannot be released because they have nowhere to live.  About two-thirds are convicted sex offenders.   About one-third require mental illness treatment but otherwise they are not considered a threat to public safety.

“We have got to do something about the housing situation, about the need for these individuals to have stable housing in order to be able to assimilate back into communities,” state Rep. Jay Neal said during a hearing that he chaired this week.  Testimony was heard from officials at state pardons and parole and community affairs, the Clayton County sheriff’s office and Support Housing Atlanta.

Having nowhere to go means inmates approved for parole have no family able or willing to take them, and no publicly supported housing facility willing to accept them.  One of the challenges associated with Georgia corrections reform is, where will released inmates go when they leave prisons?

The 2011 state special council on criminal justice reform delivered its report before Thanksgiving.  The emphasis was on establishing alternatives to incarceration to reduce budget devouring prison system costs.  The new Legislature has been in town nearly a month.  The committee that will turn the special council recommendations into a bill is currently drafting the legislation.

Governor Nathan Deal

Governor Nathan Deal’s criminal justice reform cards are on the table: $35.2 million for additional prison beds, $10 million for accountability courts expansion, $5.7 million to convert three pre-release centers to residential substance abuse treatment centers and $1.4 million to fund additional parole officers.  Those priorities were named in his State of the State address and also in his proposed FY 2013 budget.

Moving away from a strategy that emphasized incarceration to one focused on alternative treatment for non-violent persons who do not pose any public safety threat means the state criminal justice system must change the tools it needs.  Beds would be reserved for bad guys.  Other people who need treatment more than incarceration would be placed into community settings

This week a House committee met for 90 minutes to discuss the lack of available housing statewide for paroled inmates.  State parole director Michael Nail told the committee Georgia currently has 367 former sex offenders and 147 people with treatable mental illness needs who are still locked up even though they served all required time and were approved for release from the prison system.

How long might they stay locked up?  Most inmates are freed within 30-to-45 days after the parole board grants release.  That is not the case for hard-to-release inmates.    Nail said, “We’ve had inmates (who) have been there two years beyond their parole date simply because they have nowhere to go.”

Patients who require mental health treatment are a special challenge.  The systemic approach to help them is a larger question than the impact it has on criminal justice reform.  Georgia and the federal government entered into an October, 2010 consent decree that requires the state to transfer mental illness patients out of hospitals and into community settings.  The state must be able to serve 9,000 persons on a strict timetable that concludes not later than July 1, 2015.

Paul Bolster is director of Support Housing Atlanta.  Support Housing conducted a survey of mental health patients being held in several metropolitan area county jails.  Bolster said inmates were asked where they would live if they were released.  Twenty percent said they would be immediately homeless and 12 percent more said they did not know.

State Parole Director Michael Nail

“Thirty-five hundred people with serious mental illness will be discharged from metro jails within a year’s time to, probably, homelessness,” Bolster told the House committee.  “This explains why you have recidivism.”  The survey was conducted in Cobb, Gwinnett and DeKalb county jails, and statistics were incorporated from Fulton County.

Clayton is Georgia’s third smallest county by land mass, but it has the state’s fifth largest county population.  Last year the county processed 26,000 prisoners.  Those inmates consume between $7-to-$8 million annually in medicine and other health care expenses.  About 900 of the jail’s 1,700 capacity prisoners require mental health services and between 300-to-400 require intensive mental health treatment.  Sheriff Kem Kimbrough said those services could be provided at less expense outside a jail setting.

Kimbrough’s varied assignments have included work on the implementation of mental health community service boards and he holds an Emory University law degree.   “We’re spending god awful amounts of money to keep them behind bars when the reality is we could probably spend less to support them in treatment, support them in housing, get them back out into the community and maybe even rehabilitate them into quality citizens,” said Kimbrough.

Governor Deal and the special council on criminal justice reform advocated expansion of accountability courts, including drug courts, that substitute strict monitoring and treatment programs for incarceration when the offender is not a public safety threat.  The Clayton drug court program has 30 participants.

“We could have up to 300 folks that would meet drug court parameters but for one component, one very key factor, that they have stable residential housing outside the jail,” Kimbrough said.  “That is the number one thing that gets them knocked out.  If they don’t have a place to stay that is stable then they are not eligible for the drug court program.”

Clayton County Sheriff Kem Kimbrough

Pardons and parole, in partnership with corrections and community affairs, operates a program known by its acronym RPH – Residential Problem Housing.   RPH residence slots – don’t call them homes, folks do not get their own home – are available to paroled offenders who have mental health treatment or substance abuse backgrounds, but slots are not available to convicted sex offenders.

RPH began to place former offenders in 2006.  It uses primarily federal funds to pay $600 per month for room-and-board for three months to help paroled offenders return to the community.  Almost 600 people have been placed in RPH housing at a total cost of $874,000.  “That’s a lot of money but if this program did not exist and these inmates stayed incarcerated, it would have cost $5.3 million for that time frame,” parole director Nail said.  Currently the state has 44 licensed RHP facilities.

Successful re-entry into the community reduces recidivism, the rate at which prisoners return to jail.  Having somewhere to live is considered essential for transition to have a chance.

“We can get you clean, sober, on your meds and everything else, and then we send you back to the house where there is no order, all the people around you are engaged in drug activity, no one is checking on you to make sure are taking your meds,” said Clayton Sheriff Kimbrough.  “All of those things are going to put that person right back into the mix.  They are coming back to the county jail.”

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

February 2, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Less Time, More Treatment Possible for Low-Risk Drug Abuse

Mike Klein

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.”

Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver

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.

Special Council Chair Judge Todd Markle

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.

Chief Justice Carol Hunstein

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.”

Waycross Superior Court Judge Michael Boggs

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)

December 12, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Georgia Corrections Article Published by Franklin Center for Government

Mike Klein

This article was published on Monday, November 21 by the Franklin Center for Government:

Georgia’s criminal justice reform special council has delivered a recipe of recommendations that, if adopted by the General Assembly next year, could eventually shorten behind-the-bars time for some nonviolent offenders.  It would also change the direction for treatment of adult inmates whose needs might better be addressed in mental health settings than state prisons.

The executive summary states, “Many of the policy proposals in this report focus on improving community-based supervising, sanctions and services as well as other practices proven to reduce recidivism, which are essential to improving public safety.”

Governor Nathan Deal’s office released the 25-page report but no news conference was held.  The release had a more subdued feeling than a public event last spring when the governor, lieutenant governor, house speaker, state Supreme Court chief justice, attorney general and other elected officials stepped to a podium to announce criminal justice reform.

Georgia spends more than $1 billion dollars per year on adult incarcerations.  Maintaining state prisons is the second fastest growing segment of the state budget – behind only Medicaid – and by some estimates prison system expansion could cost the state another quarter billion dollars within five years.  Georgia currently houses 55,000 adult inmates, most of whom are men.

The Georgia challenge is how to balance public safety, potentially revise sentencing structure, provide alternative sentencing resources and acknowledge cost considerations in such a way that the state is not considered soft on crime – especially important in a 2012 election year.

The special council recommended expansion of drug, mental health and veterans’ courts that could offer alternatives to incarceration, including day-reporting centers.  More than 3,200 people whose only offense is personal drug possession are admitted to Georgia prisons each year.  One-fourth of all admissions are for persons whose major need is mental health services.

The council said supervision for 156,000 adults sentenced to probation and 22,000 on parole after state prison terms also needs a closer look.  Council members wrote that “supervision agencies do not have the resources required to supervise offenders adequately.”  An electronic reporting pilot project is already being conducted this year with low-risk adult parolees.

Several recommendations largely fall along the lines of implementing ideas that make sense without needing revolutionary change to the overall criminal justice approach.  For instance, the council said Georgia should increase the dollar value of felony shoplifting from $350 to $700.  The felony threshold for some theft crimes could be tripled from $500 to $1,500.

The council also proposed decriminalization of minor traffic offenses; those would become violations and not misdemeanors.  This would help to clear local court system calendars, reserving the court’s time for felony and other types of cases and saving taxpayer dollars.

There was a general consensus resources could be coordinated better on many levels to avoid duplication of effort, again to save time and resources.

Governor Deal congratulated the special council for delivering a “comprehensive, serious and well-crafted report” but he also acknowledged its recommendations are just “a starting point.”  A bipartisan legislative committee will be charged with determining what if any part of the council’s work can be turned into legislation that will be palatable during an election year.  Legislators return to Atlanta in January, although committees are already meeting on several topics.

Here is a link to the Georgia Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform complete report.

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

November 21, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

Excerpts: Georgia Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform Report

Mike Klein

The following excerpts contain all the substantial recommendations contained within the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform report that was released Friday November 18 by Governor Nathan Deal’s office. There was no news conference at the time this article was posted.  The online complete Special Council report contains extensive sourcing footnotes that were eliminated here to ease reading.  Edited for length. This link will re-direct you to the complete and unedited report as released by Governor Deal’s office.

Policies to Protect Public Safety, Hold Offenders Accountable and Contain Corrections Costs

Georgia policymakers are looking for ways to increase public safety and to control corrections spending and growth in the prison population. Per its legislative mandate, the Council undertook an extensive review of the state’s data and practices to analyze whether Georgia’s laws, policies and practices were focused on reducing recidivism and improving public safety.

This report provides analysis and options for policymakers to consider to increase public safety and avert the growth currently projected for the state’s prison population. It provides descriptions of each of the options. The Council strongly recommends that where potential savings are achieved, a portion be reinvested into those options that have been proven to reduce recidivism and improve public safety. These include expanding the availability of drug and other accountability courts and strengthening community supervision. The Council also suggests investing in effective information and performance measurement systems.

The following policy options are presented in three sections:

** The first section consists of recommendations to improve public safety and hold offenders accountable by improving the criminal justice system in Georgia, particularly focusing on strengthening community supervision, sanctions and services.

** The second section outlines potential sentencing reform options that will focus expensive prison beds on violent, career criminals and identify lower-level, non-violent offenders who could be effectively supervised in the community.

**The final section summarizes the priority reinvestment opportunities that the Council believes should be adopted by the legislature in order to improve public safety in Georgia.

Part I: Improving Public Safety and Holding Offenders Accountable

The Council’s analysis indicated that Georgia has established several good community-based sentencing options, but that they are insufficient in scale and scope to meet current needs. These options often do not exist in many parts of the state and too many of the options have waiting lists.

In addition, the Council noted that the number of people on probation or parole in Georgia has risen consistently. Since 2000, Georgia’s felony probation population has grown by 22 percent and the state’s parole population has grown 9 percent.  As of 2010, there were more than 156,000 felony probationers and 22,000 parolees being supervised in Georgia communities. In both 2009 and 2010, more offenders entered probation supervision than were discharged.

Finally, probation sentences are twice as long as the national average.45 The result of these facts and trends is that supervision agencies are overburdened in their efforts to provide effective supervision.

Based on this analysis, the Council developed a number of recommendations to improve public safety and hold offenders accountable. The recommendations focus on four areas: (1) Ensuring access to effective community-based sanctions, (2) Strengthening community supervision, (3) Ensuring resources are used effectively, and (4) Improving government performance to achieve long-term success.

Ensure Access to Effective Community-Based Sanctions

Recommendation 1: Create a statewide system of accountability courts. The Council recommends expanding the number of accountability courts and implementing a comprehensive standards and evaluation system to ensure all accountability courts are effective at improving public safety. Georgia has a number of accountability courts currently operating, including drug courts, mental health courts, veterans’ courts, and others, but some areas of the state do not have any accountability courts. Drug courts, for example, have been proven effective when they follow specific best practices both here in Georgia and across the country. By creating a statewide system of accountability courts that establishes best practices, collects information on performance measures, increases funding and conditions funding on adherence to best practices, Georgia can ensure that its accountability courts are making the most of their potential to increase public safety and controlling costs.

Specifically, the Council recommends that:

1. the Administrative Office of the Courts develop an electronic information system for performance measurement and require the submission of performance data.

2. the Judicial Council Standing Committee on Accountability Courts define and publish standards and mandatory practices to be promulgated by the Judicial Council within 6 months.

3. the Administrative Office of the Courts condition the award of state funds on compliance with standards and best practices.

4. the Administrative Office of the Courts create a certification and review process to ensure programs are adhering to standards and mandatory practices to include onsite auditing and the provision of technical assistance with evidence-based practices.

5. the state expand funding for accountability courts. The Council considered several options, including (1) redirecting savings from other reforms in this report, (2) dedicating a percentage of the County Drug Abuse Treatment and Education (DATE) Fund to drug courts and expanding the number of offenses that could be considered for a DATE fine, and (3) implementing a minimum fine for any drug offense that would be dedicated to accountability courts.

Recommendation 2:Expand access to effective treatment and programming options in communities around the state. Georgia struggles with a lack of community intervention resources, notably for substance abuse and mental health services. This means that judges have limited non-prison sentencing options to choose from. Programs that do exist like residential substance abuse treatment programs (RSATs) and day reporting centers (DRCs) have significant wait lists and are not available in all parts of the state. The Council recommends expanding these resources immediately and using a portion of the savings identified in this repor

Strengthen Community Supervision

Recommendation 3: Require the implementation of Evidence-Based Practices. Research and practice over the past 25 years have identified new strategies and policies that can make a significant dent in recidivism rates. Ensuring that evidence-based practices (EBP) are used and that state funds are spent on EBP will ensure the state is getting the best public safety return on its investment. This recommendation would require that offenders on probation and parole are supervised in accordance with practices proven to reduce recidivism, and that state funds for offender programming are spent on programs that are evidence-based.  By adopting a comprehensive, research-based approach to supervision, corrections systems can reduce recidivism by up to 30 percent.49 This significantly improves public safety and reduces costs.

Recommendation 4: Create Performance Incentive Funding Pilot Projects. Evidence-based community corrections agencies can cut recidivism, but adequate funding for them is a perennial challenge in the criminal justice system. States and localities can align their fiscal relationships in ways that reward performance. If corrections agencies are successful in cutting the rate at which offenders are sent back to prison for new crimes or rule violations, the state reaps savings by avoiding prison costs. By sharing some of those savings with the successful agencies and localities, states can help build stronger community corrections systems without appropriating new funds.

Recommendation 5: Implement mandatory supervision for all offenders who max-out their sentence. In 2010, 7,495 offenders released from prison had no parole supervision to follow. Of those offenders, 1,592 also had no probation supervision to follow meaning that they were released from prison with no supervision at all.50 These offenders include serious and even some chronic offenders, and by requiring that offenders serve time on parole, parole officers can provide supervision while these offenders transition back into the community. They also can serve as a valuable resource to crime victims, who are eager for information concerning the offenders in their cases. This recommendation requires that all inmates who would be released without any supervision be transferred to parole supervision six months before their discharge date.

Ensure Georgia’s Resources are Used Effectively

Recommendation 6: Improve Government Performance by Eliminating Dual Supervision. Currently some offenders are supervised by both probation and parole at the same time. However, it is unknown exactly how large this population is due to the difficulty of identifying these offenders through different information systems. Any overlap of time and resources to supervise offenders under both probation and parole is a significant waste of resources for the state. This recommendation would require GDC and the Board of Pardons and Paroles to identify a way to measure and track offenders who are dually supervised, whether as a result of the same or separate cases, and require that they develop rules governing how to eliminate such overlap.

Recommendation 7: Implement Earned Compliance Credits for Probation and Parole. With the average probation sentence in Georgia twice as long as the national average, offenders stack up and stretch probation thin. Earned compliance credits allow agencies to devote time and effort to offenders who present a greater threat to community safety and who are more likely to benefit from supervision and programs. It also promises to enhance motivation and promote behavior change by providing offenders with incentives to meet the goals and conditions of supervision.

The Council had significant discussions about ways to ensure that offenders are compliant and, in particular, the Council discussed the use of drug testing to ensure compliance. With current resources and staffing, probation is only able to conduct about 6,000 drug tests per month, resulting in many offenders being tested infrequently or not at all.53 Thus, the Council suggests that standards for drug testing be developed.

Recommendation 8: Expand the Performance Incentive Credit (PIC) program. Georgia can reserve prison space for higher-risk offenders and create incentives for offenders to participate in programming that will reduce the likelihood to reoffend upon release. This recommendation endorses changes that GDC and Board of Pardons and Paroles are making to the current PIC program. These changes, which include allowing offenders to earn up to 12 months of PIC time off their sentence for participation in work or risk reduction, should be codified in statute.

Recommendation 9: Improve the mechanism for ending probation for non-violent offenders on unsupervised or administrative supervision. Currently there are more than 50,000 probationers on unsupervised or administrative supervision. Georgia law allows supervision officers to bring probationers back to court to request that supervision be terminated. However, probation termination is frequently not sought or granted. Removing low-risk, non-violent probationers who have met all of their obligations, including restitution, from supervision caseloads allows officers to focus their time on moderate and high-risk offenders who need supervision.

Recommendation 10: Cap Sentences at Probation Detention Centers (PDCs). PDCs were meant to be 60 to 120 day programs. According to GDC, the average length of stay for those leaving a PDC in FY 2011 was 183 days, with the average length of stay at one PDC reaching 254 days.  In addition, there are currently about 800 offenders in local jails awaiting a PDC bed.  Capping stays at PDCs would reduce the jail backlog by allowing more offenders into PDC beds. In addition, providing information to judges on the current utilization levels of PDCs and any current PDC backlog will assist judges in making the best decisions.

This recommendation would require a 180-day cap on the sentence at Probation Detention Centers. The Council discussed not applying this cap, however, to offenders receiving a suspended PDC sentence in order to participate in a drug court program. In addition, the Council suggests that the Georgia Department of Corrections be required or incentivized to remove an offender from a local jail if beds are available.

Improve Government Performance and Ensure Long-Term Success

Recommendation 11: Create a Criminal Justice Reform Oversight Council. This recommendation would create an oversight council composed of legislative, executive, and judicial branch members, as well as representatives from the various sectors of the criminal justice system at the state and local level. The Oversight Council would be a continuing organization charged with monitoring and reporting back to the General Assembly on the implementation of the Special Council’s recommendations and the Special Committee’s legislation. The Oversight Council would also be asked to make additional recommendations to the General Assembly on future legislation and policy options.

Several issues were raised by Council members that could not be fully addressed for this report, but that the Council members felt deserved further examination. The Oversight Council could examine these issues further. These issues include, but are not limited to, the following:

Juvenile justice reform: Council members believe that a full examination of the state’s juvenile justice system should be undertaken to develop recommendations for reform.

Misdemeanor probation: Georgia’s unique approach to supervising misdemeanor offenders in the community should be fully examined, including the financing and monitoring of private probation, to determine whether it meets the public safety needs of the state and whether it adheres to evidence-based practices.

Battered person syndrome reforms: Some offenders currently incarcerated may not have been able to present evidence about abuse they endured. Council members believe that consideration of changes to the parole relief statute, ability to bring petitions to the Supreme Court, and ability to bring petitions to the Court of Appeals would allow for a fairer criminal justice system and could remove from the prison population people who do not present a threat to society.

Recommendation 12: Improve the electronic criminal justice information systems. Council members highlighted three areas of Georgia’s current exchange of criminal justice information for improvement: providing information to judges about sentencing and parole practices, requiring submissions of electronic sentencing information to Corrections and Parole, and creating electronic notification of parole notifications to judges and prosecutors.

Recommendation 13: Implement a performance auditing system. Internal audits by the Georgia Department of Corrections have shown significant strengths among the agency’s programs and facilities. However these audits also indicate a fidelity problem among some programs and facilities operated by the department. For example, not all offender files contained structured case plans, case plans were inconsistent and sometimes were not linked to assessments, and risk was not always a factor in selecting offenders.  This recommendation would require that GDC and Parole develop a system to regularly conduct external audits of all programs, practices and facilities, require that they report yearly on such audits to the Oversight Council and detail how they are using the audits to improve outcomes and meet the evidence-based practices requirement.

Recommendation 14: Implement a systematic performance measurement model. Most performance measures in Georgia track processes such as case flow (new cases received, cases discharged, cases remaining), activity counts (number of office or field contacts completed, number of drug tests administered), or point-in-time snapshots (average caseload size, types of cases supervised). Such measures provide information about the agency workload, but fail to address the results achieved by the agency.  This recommendation would require that GDC and Parole implement a systematic performance measurement model that includes measures of outcomes in key performance areas and report yearly to the Oversight Council …

Part II: Focus Expensive Prison Beds on Serious Offenders

Drug and property offenders represent almost 60 percent of all admissions to Georgia prisons.  In fact, five of the top six most common prison admission offenses are drug and property offenses. The average time spent in prison for offenders convicted of drug and property offenses tripled between 1990 and 2010.

Importantly, many of these offenders are identified as lower-risk to re-offend.  In 2010, Georgia courts sent more than 5,000 lower-risk drug and property offenders to prison who had never been incarcerated before, accounting for 25 percent of all admissions last year.

Looking more closely at admissions for drug crimes, nearly 3,200 offenders entered prison following a conviction for drug possession (as opposed to trafficking or sales) and, based on historical trends, are likely to spend a year and a half in prison before returning to the community. Yet two-thirds of these inmates were assessed as having a lower-risk to re-offend.

Research suggests that incarceration can lead to increased recidivism for certain offenders, and that this effect is stronger for felony drug offenders.  The Council considered a number of options to identify low-risk offenders who could be effectively supervised in the community at a lower cost, ensuring prison beds are available for more high-risk offenders.

Policy Options: Package 1

The Council developed the following options for consideration by the legislature. These options focus on identifying low-risk, nonviolent offenders who could be effectively supervised in the community at a lower cost, ensuring prison beds are available for more dangerous offenders.  The following policy options would reduce the projected growth in the prison population by up to 3,300 offenders over five years. However, even if these reforms are implemented, the prison population will still grow by approximately 600 offenders by the end of that time frame.

Package 1: Theft

The felony theft threshold in Georgia, last changed in 1982, is $500. Adjusting for inflation, this means that the felony standard has decreased by more than 50 percent ($500 in 1982 is equivalent to more than $1,100 today). In recent years, many other states have updated their felony thresholds. South Carolina raised its to $2,000; Texas to $1,500; and North Carolina to $1,000.  The Council suggests increasing the theft threshold for certain theft offenses from $500 to $1,500 and instituting sentence ranges that correspond to the value of the theft, including increasing the sentencing range for higher values. This increase would apply to the following statutes: Theft by taking, by deception, by conversion, by receiving stolen property, by receiving property stolen in another state, by bringing stolen property into state, theft of services, of lost or mislaid property, and copper theft.  In addition, the Council suggests increasing the threshold of theft by shoplifting from $300 to $750.

Package 1: Burglary

The Council recognizes that burglary is a serious offense. However, Georgia’s current burglary statute includes one sentencing range for all types of burglaries, spanning theft from an unoccupied tool shed to a nighttime invasion of an occupied home. Some states create different degrees of burglary based on the specific type of burglary committed and the details of the offense. The Council suggests creating two degrees of burglary by separating burglary of unoccupied structures from dwellings. Second degree burglary would include burglaries of unoccupied structures… First degree burglary would include burglaries of any dwelling, whether unoccupied or occupied. The Council also suggests adjusting the sentencing range to correspond to the degree of the offense, including raising the sentencing range for serious offenses that involve residential homes.

Package 1: Forgery

The current forgery statute groups all types of forgeries together without distinguishing between the type of document that is forged. Some states create separate degrees of forgeries based on the specific type of forgery committed and the details of the offense. The Council suggests creating degrees of forgery by separating forgery of checks from forgeries of other documents and also implementing a differentiation for forgeries of checks above or below $1,500. In addition, the Council suggests adjusting the deposit account fraud (“bad checks”) threshold from $500 to $1,500 for consistency. The Council also suggests adjusting the sentencing range to correspond to the degree of the offense, including raising the sentencing range for more serious forgeries.

Package 1: Mandatory Minimum Safety Valve

The Council suggests allowing judges to depart from mandatory minimum sentences for drug trafficking under the following specific circumstances:

• The interests of justice are served by a reduced minimum sentence;

• Public safety is likely to be improved with expedited access to risk-reduction programs;

• And the court specifies on the record the specific circumstances and reasons warranting this departure.

The Council recommends that a deviation floor be set whereby, if these criteria are met, the judge could reduce the minimum sentence by a certain percentage of the mandatory minimum, which would set a deviation floor ensuring some imprisonment for these offenders.

Package 1: Front-End Risk Assessment

The Council suggests authorizing AOC and GDC to establish a pilot program that would implement a risk assessment tool to identify prison-bound, non-violent drug and property offenders (without a prior violent or sex conviction, prior drug sale or trafficking conviction) who could be diverted from prison.

The Council discussed the challenges to implementing a risk assessment for prison-bound offenders and felt that through a pilot program the AOC and GDC could work out these issues before expanding statewide. The Council discussed two possible implementation options that AOC and GDC could consider:

Pre-Sentencing – Develop a tool that would identify those offenders most likely to be sentenced to prison. This group would be assessed by GDC before sentencing.

• Post-Sentencing – Develop a tool that would identify the lowest risk offenders for potential diversion (similar to Alabama) and require GDC to go back to the judge to request a different sentence for low-risk offenders.

Package 1: Minor traffic offenses

Currently, Georgia criminalizes minor traffic offenders while most other states treat them as violations with a fine as penalty. The numbers of traffic offenses that clog the court process are significant. The state has more than 2 million traffic offenses a year … The Council suggests changing minor traffic offenses from misdemeanors to violations, creating a new class of violations that are non-criminal for minor traffic offenses.  It is suggested that this include offenses below four point violations, and thus would not include offenses such as DUI, driving with a suspended driver’s license, or other serious traffic offenses.  The Council discussed options to enforce the fines imposed for such offenses, and recommend that the fines be tied to person’s driver’s license renewal and vehicle registration.

Package 1: Parole Guidelines

In 2008, the Parole Board implemented parole guidelines. The Council recommends requiring the Board of Pardons and Paroles to re-validate the guidelines every five years beginning in the year after enactment of these sentencing reforms so that the guidelines reflect current practice and standards.

Additional Policy Options

Georgia’s prisons hold several thousand people serving time for possession of controlled substances. The Council examined the background of these offenders as well as the policies and practices leading to their incarceration. The Council concluded that these policies and the lack of sentencing options have both a public safety and a financial cost.

The Council found two significant factors in the high number of possession offenders admitted to prison. First, the sentencing laws related to drug offenses are broad compared with other states. Second, some communities have limited if any options for offenders. In order to improve public safety and reduce costs the Council considered several sentencing options for drug offenses.

However no consensus was reached. The Council includes in this report two of the specific options considered and recommends that state policymakers consider these options or other options to address how the state deals with offenders whose criminal conduct is largely driven by drug addiction.

The Council believes that in order for any change in sentencing practices to be effective, courts and probation officers must have options that address the treatment needs of the state. There must be a commitment to improve and expand the services currently available so that judges and the public believe that putting a person on probation will improve public safety. Toward that end, the recommendations elsewhere in this report related to day reporting centers, residential treatment centers and accountability courts should be a priority for the legislature in the coming year.

Additional Policy Option 1: Develop a simple drug possession offense based on weight. Currently, the only weight threshold for drug offenses exists for trafficking offenses, which is 28 grams.73 Possession includes any amount up to that level. The Council discussed creating a simple possession statute for cocaine and methamphetamine below a specific amount such as 1 gram.

Additional Policy Option 2: Presumptive probation for drug offenders. This option would require that any person convicted of possessing a controlled substance shall be presumed to be appropriate for a sentence of probation in lieu of a prison sentence so long as the person has not been convicted of a violent offense, a sex offense, or a trafficking offense. The presumption of probation may be overridden and a prison sentence may be imposed if the judge finds that other factors present a significant public safety risk.

Part III: Reinvestment Priorities

In order to create a sentencing and corrections system that takes maximum advantage of research-based strategies to improve public safety, the Council recommends that the legislature consider specific reinvestment priorities detailed in this report. Among the top priorities of the Council members are providing reinvestment funds to expand accountability courts, residential treatment beds and day reporting centers. These programs will give greater options to judges and broaden access to effective alternatives for appropriate offenders.

In addition, the Council recommends that funding be provided to implement external audits of programs, implement a performance measurement system, and improve and integrate state and local criminal justice information systems. These recommendations will improve the performance of the criminal justice system and ensure long-term success and sustainability.

Finally, the Council recommends that funding be expanded to increase the prevalence and effectiveness of drug testing of offenders on community supervision and increase the use of GPS monitoring for appropriate offenders. These options will ensure that offenders are supervised effectively and are held accountable while on supervision.

(End of Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform report recommendations)

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

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

Georgia Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform Report Released

Mike Klein

This morning Governor Nathan Deal’s office has released the long-awaited Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform recommendations.  Here is Governor Deal’s accompanying statement:

“The Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform has exceeded expectations by delivering a comprehensive, serious and well-crafted report. I joined members of the General Assembly in asking this council to provide us with a starting point. We still have a long way to go in this process, as my office engages with legislators and concerned Georgians on where we go from here. Obviously, the council has provided us with an in-depth study and recommendations. One of those recommendations I have already agreed to: I will sign an executive order to keep a council intact so that it can continue to provide input on this important topic. We have an amazing opportunity to save lives as well as tax dollars. While we’ll never shrink from our duty to protect the public from dangerous criminals, we know that alternative sentencing for nonviolent offenders suffering from addiction or mental illness produces much better results. Let’s get to work on promoting recovery and rehabilitation rather than a system that simply hardens criminals.”

Here is a link to the complete report:  Special Council on Corrections Reform Report

Here is the complete Executive Summary:

Criminal Justice Reform Process
Seeking new ways to protect public safety while controlling the growth of prison costs, the 2011 Georgia General Assembly passed HB 265 to establish the inter-branch Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform for Georgians (Council). Beginning in the summer of 2011, the Council members began a detailed analysis of Georgia’s sentencing and corrections data and solicited input from a wide range of stakeholders to identify ways to improve public safety for the citizens of Georgia. The Council used that information to develop tailored policy options, including proposals that would invest a portion of any savings from averted prison spending into evidence-based strategies to improve public safety by strengthening probation and parole supervision and reducing recidivism.

Cost of Doing Nothing
During the past two decades, the prison population in Georgia has more than doubled to nearly 56,000 inmates. As a result, Georgia has one of the highest proportions of adult residents under correctional control. This growth has come at a substantial cost to Georgia’s taxpayers. Today the state spends more than $1 billion annually on corrections, up from $492 million in FY 1990. Yet despite this growth in prison, Georgia taxpayers haven’t received a better public safety return on their corrections dollars: the recidivism rate has remained unchanged at nearly 30 percent throughout the past decade. If current policies remain in place, analysis indicates that Georgia’s prison population will rise by another 8 percent to reach nearly 60,000 inmates by 2016, presenting the state with the need to spend an additional $264 million to expand capacity.

Opportunities for Reform
The Council’s analysis revealed that inmate population growth is due in large part to policy decisions about who is being sent to prison and how long they stay. The data shows that drug and property offenders represent almost 60 percent of all admissions. Importantly, many of these offenders are identified as lower-risk. 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. 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.

The Council also identified several challenges to the state’s ability to effectively supervise offenders on probation and parole and provide interventions that can reduce the likelihood of re-offending. Since 2000, Georgia’s felony probation population has grown by 22 percent to 156,000 and the state’s parole population has grown by 9 percent to 22,000. Currently, probation and parole agencies operate effective programs using evidence-based tools to identify and supervise higher risk offenders. But the Council’s analysis shows that these options are limited and supervision agencies do not have the resources required to supervise offenders adequately. With greater investment in these and other programs and expansion to additional sites to serve more offenders, the state can reduce recidivism and create viable sentencing options for judges that can achieve better public safety outcomes at a lower cost.

Policy Options
This report provides analysis and options for policymakers to consider. These policy options increase public safety and avert the growth currently projected for the state’s prison population. The Council considered these recommendations and options and, despite not reaching consensus on every one, agreed to forward the report to the legislature for consideration and action in the 2012 legislative session.

The Council recommends that where potential savings are achieved, a portion should be reinvested into those options proven to reduce recidivism and improve public safety. These include expanding the availability of drug and other accountability courts and strengthening community supervision. The Council also recommends investing in effective information and performance measurement systems.

Many of the policy proposals in this report focus on improving community-based supervision, sanctions and services as well as other practices proven to reduce recidivism, which are essential to improving public safety. Some of these proposals will require investment by the state. In order to allow for this reinvestment, the policy proposals in this report provide the legislature with options to avert much if not all of the projected growth in the prison population and corresponding costs over the next five years.

End Executive Summary

November 18, 2011 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

Is Juvenile Justice the Missing Link in Georgia Corrections Reform?

Mike Klein

Golfers love being on the leader board.  Corrections officials, not so much as there is nothing to celebrate about Georgia being the national leader with the highest percentage of its adults under corrections system supervision.  The ratio is 1-in-13 and it is the worst in the country.

Not only does it cost lots of money – more than $1 billion per year in state dollars to run prisons – but lofty incarceration, probation and parole statistics send the wrong message nationally and internationally when Georgia tries to market itself as a leading edge economy and destination.

Over the next several months you will hear extensive discussion about adult corrections system reform.  A commission created by the 2011 General Assembly was told to develop proposals to streamline Georgia corrections without an adverse impact on public safety.  The report is due to Governor Nathan Deal in seven weeks, with legislation possible next year.

Not much of the process is being conducted in public – there have been just three public meetings – and the process does not include a juvenile justice system review.  That is an unfortunate and perhaps costly oversight.  Doesn’t it make sense that a high percentage of adults who commit felonies and fill our prisons began their criminal careers as troubled youths?

Fulton Superior Court Chief Judge Cynthia Wright

“It seems to me that if we were to concentrate a lot of our efforts more in the juvenile justice arena then we might have greater success later in terms of reducing the crime rate,” said Judge Cynthia Wright, chief judge of the Fulton County Superior Court.   Wright appeared on a public safety panel hosted by Women in Leadership this week at The Commerce Club.

“I know that our (Fulton County) juvenile court judges have said that we don’t really have a lot of options where to send violent kids,” Wright said.  “The amount of time that they can spend in any sort of detention facility has been reduced down to almost nothing.  These kids go through the juvenile court and they are right back out on the street again.”

Crime is a repeat and often a family business.  ”I keep seeing the same people I sent off before (and) generationally, see their family members,” said Superior Court Judge Michael Boggs who serves on the Waycross Judicial Circuit in southeast Georgia.  Boggs is also a corrections reform commission member, and he appeared alongside Wright on the Commerce Club panel.

Georgia adult corrections system numbers are ugly:  56,000 at least in prison and 160,000 on parole or probation.  Georgia has the ninth largest state population but overall, the fourth largest corrections system.  Totals do not include adults locked up in county or municipal jails.

The state Department of Juvenile Justice serves 60,000 juveniles per year.  Three-fourths are male.  On any given day 2,000 youths are detained in secure facilities and 20,000 are assigned to less restrictive community based settings.  State juvenile justice system funding is going backward; down from just under $322 million in Fiscal 2008 to about $286 million in Fiscal 2012.

Recidivism – the percentage rate at which a former inmate is back behind bars – is nearly identical in the state’s adult corrections and juvenile systems.   This year The Pew Center for the States reported 34.8% of Georgia adults released starting in 2004 were back behind bars within three years.  Comparable statewide juvenile data was 40% within twelve months during the fiscal year that ended in June 2010, the latest numbers available.

Why this happens and how to enact reform that does not impact public safety is why we have a commission.   One impetus is clearly financial – adult corrections costs are the fastest growing line item after Medicaid state dollars.  More important, Georgia cannot become the state that it aspires to be so long as crime and corrections dominate at least some of the media message.

The final thoughts here are from Waycross Superior Court Judge Boggs:  “I sit around with some very conservative folks having a cup of coffee and they’ll say, lock ‘em up.  But do you know that it will cost $80 million to build one 1,500-bed prison in this state?  That’s not including the cost of the land and it will cost $25 million a year to operate that prison.

“We’re going to give the Legislature a lot to choose from and then they’re going to decide what is politically palatable and what they turn into legislation,” Boggs said.  “It’s not one size fits all and it’s certainly not a magic pill.  This is going to be a lengthy process.  It will not be fixed by whatever bill comes out of the recommendation that comes out of this committee.”

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

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