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Senate Passes Criminal Justice Reform 51-0 with Amendments

Mike Klein

Georgia criminal justice reform has passed both chambers but the House would need to agree to substitute legislation because the Senate added seven amendments when it passed the bill 51-0 on Tuesday afternoon.  Two other floor amendments failed and two were withdrawn.

None of the amendments dramatically change Georgia’s most sweeping criminal justice reform since a generation of do the crime, do the time laws were passed some twenty years ago.

Governor Nathan Deal made criminal justice reform a major priority during his first State of the State address in January 2011.  The work of the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform last year and the legislature this year are an important first step forward with others to follow.

The satisfaction that was evident because of these reforms is somewhat tempered because the fate of a juvenile justice code rewrite is less certain.  Some sources who are familiar with the HB 641 juvenile code rewrite said Tuesday that the bill is dead this year because it still requires more financial analysis of the impact that would be made by proposed changes.

So for the moment the spotlight shines on adult criminal justice system reforms.

Monday afternoon Sen. Bill Hamrick outlined changes to burglary, forgery and other sections when he presented House Bill 1176 to the Senate.  Hamrick is co-chair of the Special Joint Committee on Criminal Justice Reform.  One amendment would reduce the number of felony burglary levels from three in the House version to two in the Senate version.

Senator Bill Hamrick

“After discussion with prosecutors we believe it was a little too complicated and so we’ve narrowed it to two,” Hamrick said about the burglary section.  Residential burglary would become a first degree felony and all other burglaries would become second degree felonies.  The House and the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform both said that burglary of an occupied home should be treated different from burglary of unoccupied sheds or buildings.

The Senate version would also change the forgery statute.  “Checks are the most common type of forgery,” Hamrick said.  Felony check forgery would be established at $1,500 and above, or possession of ten or more blank checks that were intended to be passed as forged checks.  Forgery of checks valued at less than $1,500 would be prosecuted as misdemeanor offenses.

Other changes would assist counties with drug court funding, assist state courts if their case loads grow due to other criminal justice reforms, make sure misdemeanor crimes are counted when a person’s recidivism record is being reviewed and strengthen the state’s prosecution language for persons who are charged with trafficking a person for sexual purposes.

There was bipartisan enthusiasm for reform on the Senate floor.  “It is my hope that not only can we pass this unanimously but also look toward some of the remaining issues that in the future may need to be addressed,” said Democratic Sen. Emanuel Jones.  Gov. Deal has kept the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform intact and its work is expected to continue this year.

The intent of this two-year reform initiative is to slow down the anticipated growth inside Georgia prisons by emphasizing alternatives to incarceration for non-violent property crime offenders and personal drug abusers who would benefit more from intense treatment programs.

Twenty years ago Georgia had a $500 million state prisons budget and about 30,000 inmates. A generation of popular do the crime, do the time laws exploded the prison population. Today the state has 56,000 inmates and a $1.1 billion prison budget plus several hundred million dollars more for parole and probation.  Georgia faced having 60,000 inmates plus $264 million in additional new cost within four years if the state did nothing about criminal justice reform.

Another section in the new law would change public access to records kept on persons who are charged but never prosecuted or charged but never convicted.  The charge — regardless of the outcome — often makes it difficult and sometimes impossible to find employment, which is one of the two key factors in rehabilitation.  The other is available secure housing.

Hamrick noted people who have an arrest but no conviction “deal with that on their record for the rest of their life, basically.  We have some provisions in the bill that would allow for those records to be restricted when a person is applying for a job but not restricted to the extent that law enforcement or judicial officials would not get that information.”

The House and Senate are not in session Wednesday.  House consideration of the Senate amendments will become an agenda for the 40th and final day on Thursday.

March 27, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

Governor Deal Defends $19.2 Million Budget During Capitol Hearing

Mike Klein

Governor Nathan Deal opened three days of House-Senate appropriations hearings by taking exception to media reports that suggest his budget is a significant spending increase.

Deal proposed a $19.2 million Fiscal 2013 budget, up from $18.3 million this year.  Increases would fully fund anticipated K-12 enrollment growth, required pension and the state employee health care benefit obligations, improve Medicaid funding and enable the state to purchase new prison beds “for those who truly need to be locked up,” the Governor said.

“Other than funding these areas of growth, my budget calls for funding increases of three-tenths of 1 percent,” Deal told assembled legislators at the State Capitol, “not the figure that you have seen in some of the media reports.”  Deal added $4.2 million to support residency slots for physicians, $10 million for One Georgia rural economic development, $10 million for accountability courts and $3.7 million for school nurses.

The Governor said 14,000 state positions were taken off the books since last year and the total state workforce is down 7.7 percent since 2001 to about 96,800 employees.  “When adjusted for inflation per capita spending in my budget recommendation for fiscal year 2013 is 20 and one-half percent less than Fiscal Year 2002,” Deal said.  “In that same time period state population grew by approximately 1.5 million.  Therefore, we are providing more services with fewer resources.”

Governor Nathan Deal

The State Personnel Administration would be phased out under Deal’s 2013 budget with its staff and resources transferred to other state agencies.  There would be sweeping changes at the Department of Labor.  DOL state funds would be reduced by $23.3 million and many services would be transferred to other agencies.  Deal has also proposed selling state fixed wing aircraft and transferring Georgia Aviation Authority budget, staff and resources to other agencies.

“There are no new taxes being proposed and this is small government that is focused on doing the things that government is expected to do and to do them well,” Deal told legislators.

Using phrases like “relatively good news for a change” Georgia state fiscal economist Kenneth Heaghney testified that recovery to pre-recession levels is still three years away, the state housing industry is still weak and Europe could be a big drain on the U.S. and Georgia economies for years to come.

Heaghney presented a mixed but overall an upbeat report.  “All in all, the news has been good,” the Georgia State University economist told the Senate-House Joint Appropriations Committee.  “The outlook is positive.  We do expect the economy to strengthen.”  He said state monthly tax revenues have been consistently stronger and that trend is expected to continue.

State Economist Kenneth Heaghney

Heaghney said several factors will determine the pace of recovery.  “Consumers are still trying to adjust to declines in their housing wealth and their equity wealth. We see Europe probably falling into recession,” he said. “China’s growth is slowing so there is a slowdown in the overall global economy.  There are still headwinds and we expect the recovery to be improving but still not the kind of robust growth we’ve seen coming out of other recessions.”

Heaghney said the national economy ended last year with upticks in GDP growth and lower jobless claims along with improvement in manufacturing, professional and business services, education and health care sectors.  He said the U.S. broader national economy was resilient despite oil price instability, European and U.S. debt crises and the Japanese earthquake.

Heaghney predicted state government revenue will not return to pre-recession levels until Fiscal 2015.  Here is what he said about the state housing downturn:  “It’s really tough to find any good news in Georgia.”  Heaghney said real estate values declined 3 percent nationally last year but 12 percent in Atlanta.  “That suggests that probably distressed sales are making up a bigger portion of the market.”  Heaghney predicted bank foreclosures will increase going forward.

Despite those realities, Georgia continues to demonstrate slow but steady economic growth. State government month-to-month revenue increased for 18 straight months until last month when it posted a decline because of unusually high December 2010 corporate audit payments.  Fiscal year revenue is up 5.2 percent with an expectation that it will continue to improve.

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

January 17, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | Leave a comment

At Least One Republican Supports Health Insurance Exchange

Mike Klein

Republicans seem almost united that the General Assembly should not consider legislation this session to create a health insurance exchange.  “The House, the Senate and the Governor have all agreed to wait on that,” Sen. Renee Unterman said Thursday morning.

Well, united with at least one exception.  Former lawmaker and second-year Insurance Commissioner Ralph Hudgens said, “I would like to see the legislature move forward with an exchange,” when he sat next to Unterman at “Health Care Unscrambled” hosted by Georgians for a Healthy Future.  Think of it as “Eggs and Aspirin” under dim lighting at the Freight Depot.

“Wait on that” means wait for this summer’s hotly anticipated U.S. Supreme Court opinion that will decide whether the federal health care reform law survives a constitutional challenge.  Unterman started a spirited conversation that was the highlight of the morning conference.

“I was dismayed to hear, as you just heard, the Senator (Unterman) say there will be no health exchange legislation this year,” Democratic Sen. Nan Orrock said moments later.  “We are headed for a cliff.  There are those who oppose (the Affordable Care Act) and those who are for it.  I am for it.  We move forward when we can bring different ends of the political spectrum together. We’re missing the boat to keep kicking the ball down the field.”

Orrock found an apparent insurance exchange soul mate in commissioner Hudgens who said, “I don’t want the federal government setting up an exchange in Georgia.  I want Georgia setting up an exchange for Georgia.  I don’t think moving forward with an exchange is giving tacit approval to the Affordable Care Act.  I’m just telling you where I stand.”

Orrick: “Mr. Commissioner, I vote with you on that.  That exactly makes my point.”  Hudgens: “Well, that’s rare, isn’t it!”   As politicians of different political feathers, Orrock and Hudgens agreed that they seldom agree but on this issue, both said Georgia should move toward implementation of a health insurance exchange.

If upheld by the Supreme Court, the health care reform law requires that states must create health insurance exchanges before 2014 or the federal government will impose an exchange.

The National Conference on State Legislatures maintains a comprehensive website that says 13 states have enacted exchange laws.  Nineteen states including Georgia considered but did not pass legislation. Bills are pending in five states and the District of Columbia.

Governor Nathan Deal did not discuss health insurance exchanges Tuesday during his State of the State address.  Last month an advisory committee created by the General Assembly said Georgia should establish a health insurance marketplace authority, but it did not call for 2012 legislation.  Cindy Zeldin, who is executive director of Georgians for a Healthy Future, wrote the committee minority report that recommended moving forward with an exchange now.

“Georgia has an unprecedented opportunity to address our high rate of uninsurance by developing a health insurance exchange for individual consumers,” Zeldin wrote.  “Federal dollars and resources are on the table to help us craft a Georgia solution.  We should seize this opportunity.”  Nearly two million Georgia residents have no health insurance.

Georgians for a Healthy Future unveiled a seven-point legislative agenda that includes trying to plug an insurance hole created by federal health care reform.  Health insurance policies written only for children have dried up in the state’s insurance marketplace.

“This is a market in which parents would buy a health insurance plan for their child but not themselves,” Zeldin told the Public Policy Foundation.  “It might happen if the parent has a plan at work but is not offered dependent coverage, or if they cannot afford a family policy.”

Zeldin said companies pulled out of the child only market after health care reform mandated that they could not deny coverage to children because of pre-existing conditions.  Zeldin said her organization and others have been trying to identify the number of children affected in Georgia.

“We would like to follow the footsteps of several other states that have addressed this issue by passing legislation requiring insurance companies” to offer child only coverage, Zeldin said.  Colorado passed a bill for that purpose.

There may be bipartisan support.  Conference panelist Rep. Richard Smith, who is Republican chair of the House Insurance Committee, cited stand alone child policies and giving Georgians the right to purchase health insurance across state lines as two possible priorities for the 2012 General Assembly.

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

January 12, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Governor Deal Proposes $700 Million Bonds Package

Mike Klein

Governor Nathan Deal’s Fiscal 2013 proposed budget includes $700 million in new bonded projects with $235 million for the University System, $177 million for the state Board of Education and $55 million for the Technical College System.  The overall bonds package is larger than $563 million proposed by the Governor last year.

The largest pieces of the University System bonds package are $59 million to design and construct an engineered biosystems building at Georgia Tech; $52.3 million for a new veterinary medical learning center at the University of Georgia; $35 million for general improvements; $28 million for a medical education commons at the Georgia Health Sciences University in Augusta; and, $25.2 million for a new health building at Georgia Gwinnett College.

Other pieces inside the University System bonds package include $8 million for the Georgia Research Alliance to purchase equipment and fund research and development infrastructure in Atlanta, Athens and Augusta.  The Georgia Building Authority would receive $24.4 million to purchase Fort McPherson property from the federal government and a separate $4 million package to retrofit the Fort McPherson Reserve Command building for eventual state use.

The Governor recommended a Georgia Public Broadcasting $3.48 million bonds package; $1.78 million for communications and information system upgrades, and $1.7 million for roof replacement and cooling system upgrades.  GPB is attached to the University System for budgetary purposes.

Bonds projects at the Department of Education include $25 million to purchase 320 school buses, $9.4 million for vocational equipment and $4.7 million for improvements at multiple locations.  The rest of DOE’s $177 million package is described as statewide capital outlays.

Most of the Technical College System $55 million is facilities repairs – there are lots of roofs, heating and air conditioning systems on the horizon.  A new training center would be constructed for $14 million.

Governor Nathan Deal

Deal announced $46.7 million in bonds for the Savannah River harbor deepening project during his Georgia Chamber of Commerce and State of the State addresses on Tuesday.  Georgia and folks up north in South Carolina are vying for federal dollars to deepen harbors because larger ships will begin to pass through the Panama Canal in just two years.  Savannah and Charleston are not ready to handle larger ships.

The Department of Community Affairs would get $25 million for water supply projects. The Department of Economic Development would get $18.37 million in bonds for the Georgia World Congress Center to acquire land and make renovations.  The Governor proposed $15.26 million for the Department of Natural Resources for repairs, renovations and land acquisition for wildlife management areas and parks.

Justice and public safety agencies would receive $14.3 million for the Corrections to replace 187 motor vehicles; make facilities repairs and enhance cell phone interdiction measures statewide; $8.7 million for repairs and improvements at the Department of Juvenile Justice; and, $8.5 million for Public Safety to replace 100 State Patrol cars, two helicopters and also to make repairs and renovations.

Elsewhere in Governor Deal’s proposed budget:

Year-to-year general revenue is estimated to increase from $18.55 billion current year to $19.22 billion next year.  Most of that increase is anticipated growth from individual income tax revenue, plus some improvement from general sales and use tax revenues.

Health care expenses continue to grow.  Medicaid and PeachCare are funded at $252 million.  The breakdown is $159.8 million for existing enrollment, $68 million for anticipated new enrollment and $19 million to offset a reduction in federal contributions.  The Governor’s Office estimates that 21,000 children of state employees will become newly eligible for PeachCare.

More than $33 million in state funds would be set aside to pay interest to the federal government on a $721 million loan Georgia took to help pay unemployment compensation benefits during the recession. The Governor’s Office Emergency Fund would appropriate $27.2 million and the remainder would come from within the Department of Labor’s state-funded budget.  The interest payment is due September 30 and it would not reduce the full principal also owed back to Washington.

State-funded dollars for the Department of Labor would be significantly reduced from $37.7 million to $14.4 million, which reflects the transfer of some responsibilities to other state agencies.  Federal dollars used to pay unemployment compensation benefits are the largest portion of the state DOL budget.

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

January 11, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Georgia Public Broadcasting Gets Zero-Based Budget Review

Mike Klein

Georgia Public Broadcasting was named in Governor Nathan Deal’s 2013 proposed budget as one of 35 programs that will participate in zero-based budget reviews.   GPB is the only state authority whose name shows up in the zero-based budget review category.   During his Tuesday evening State of the State address the Governor said 10 percent of all state programs would move to zero-based budgets.

Popularly known as GPB-TV and GPB Radio, the official name is Georgia Public Telecommunications Commission.  The state public broadcaster is attached to the University System Board of Regents for budget purposes.  Governor Deal’s 2013 proposed budget would give GPB a very slight budget trim to $12.3 million in state dollars, less than the two percent average reduction at other agencies, but still millions of dollars below the agency’s high water mark during pre-recession year budgets.

Governor Deal’s summary of zero based budget reviews is divided into five categories that were originally conceived under the now defunct Commission for a New Georgia:  Educated Georgia, Healthy Georgia, Safe Georgia, Best Managed State and Growing Georgia.

The Governor’s proposed budget was published Wednesday morning.  It states, “The purpose of the Zero Based Budgeting review is to assess a program against its statutory responsibilities, purpose, cost to provide services, and outcomes achieved. Ten percent of programs are examined each year, including a thorough evaluation of the activities and services provided by the program, the performance measures demonstrating program outcomes and effectiveness, and program spending trends. The total recommended reduction to the programs shown above is $8,890,376.”

Educated Georgia programs that identified for zero-based budget reviews include child care services at the Department of Early Care and Learning, technology and career education at the Department of Education, the central office at the Board of Regents and departmental administration at the Technical College System.

Healthy Georgia programs include adult forensic services at Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities, health care access and improvement at Community Health; adoption services and elder community living services at Human Services; the state trauma care network commission at Public Health and the state Veterans Memorial Cemetery at Veterans Services.

Safe Georgia programs include departmental administration and probation supervision at Corrections; youth education services at Defense; the criminal justice information system at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation; the youth detention centers secure commitment program at Juvenile Justice; and, the public safety training centers program at Public Safety.

Many programs were identified in the Best Managed State category, including state purchasing at the Department of Administrative Services.  Three Governor’s Office programs were also named: the Governor’s Office for Children and Families, the Office of Student Achievement and the Office of Consumer Protection.  Four programs were selected at the State Personnel Administration including system administration and workforce development and alignment.

Also in the Best Managed State category, the Department of Labor business enterprise program will undergo a zero-based budget review as will the archives program at the Secretary of State’s office

Growing Georgia programs include marketing and promotion at Agriculture, tourism at Economic Development and airport aid at Transportation.

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

January 11, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | Leave a comment

There Was Lots to Like About Deal’s State of the State Address

Mike Klein

Governor Nathan Deal looked to the stars for guidance Tuesday evening as he delivered his second State of the State address before the General Assembly in Atlanta.  During a 42-minute address the Governor from Gainesville described his goal to achieve another world class medical college in Georgia, announced millions of new dollars for public education, threw a lifeline to former state commission charter schools, and he put his stamp firmly onto corrections reform.  Before doing that, Deal turned to the stars.

“Georgians have charged us to set a course for our state and they have defined the stars that we must follow to expand opportunity; the star of education – we must provide great schools that will cultivate the minds of our young people – the star of transportation – we must provide safe roads and avenues of commerce – the star of security – we must give every Georgian the ability to live in a safe community – and the guiding star in our constellation, jobs – we must create a business climate that provides Georgians with their best shot at a good job!  These are the stars on which our eyes must be focused as we chart the course for our great state!”

Deal said revenue stabilization – Georgia has 19 consecutive months of improved state revenue – will enable his Fiscal 2013 budget to increase K-12 schools funds by $146 million, increase technical schools and colleges funds by $11.3 million, increase school nurses funds by $3.7 million, and increase teacher salaries by $55.8 million based on training and experience.

As expected, Governor Deal also announced an increase in the number of pre-K school year days next year to 170 days, a ten-day improvement over this year.  Deal said there would be no reductions to the QBE funding formula, equalization grants or other enrollment driven programs.

He announced a new reading program for young pupils.  “Students must learn to read in order to be able to read to learn and when we fail to invest in our youngest students, we are forced to spend money on remediation for the remainder of their academic careers,” the Governor said.  “To this end, my budget includes $1.6 million for a reading mentors program.”

Governor Nathan Deal (File Photo)

Deal answered a big question about fall 2012 funding for charter schools that were affected by last spring’s Supreme Court decision that overturned the state charter schools commission.  He will ask for $8.7 million in supplemental grants to help those schools stay open next year.

The Governor added, “This is not the long-term solution, and I look forward to working with you to ensure that charter schools can thrive in Georgia. We can do this and with your help we will.”  The General Assembly is expected to consider ideas that would enable the state to become an alternate authorizer of schools that do not seek or cannot obtain a local school system charter.

On higher education, Deal came out firmly in support of a proposed consolidation of several state colleges.  The Governor described consolidation as “doing more with less.”  About medical education, he said, “Georgians deserve a world-class, public medical university and it will be a priority of this administration to have a medical college among the top 50 nationally.”

Deal said Georgia Health Sciences University in Augusta will seek to become the state’s second National Cancer Institute designated Cancer Center, alongside the Winship Cancer Center at Emory University.  “Georgia’s annual death rate from cancer exceeds the national average,” Deal said “but I believe we have all of the ingredients necessary to be a destination for cancer research and a resource for every family battling this disease.”  Georgia will invest $5 million toward that goal.

“In order to address the need for additional health professionals in Georgia, we have been investing in the expansion of undergraduate medical education for several years,” Deal said.  “We must now take the next step in this process by increasing the number of graduate residency slots.”  The Governor said his budget will fund 400 new residency positions.

Deal announced “Go Build Georgia” to assist workforce development.  Deal said 13 million people are unemployed nationally but employers cannot find qualified personnel for some 1.3 million positions.  “Right here in metro Atlanta, Siemens has been unable to fill approximately 200 skilled-trade positions in the fields of manufacturing automation, health care technology, transportation systems and technical services.  It is time we begin work to boost our pipeline.”

On transportation, Deal said new southbound lanes will be added to Georgia 400 to alleviate congestion.  The Governor said he supports ideas to alleviate Northwest corridor congestion along I-75 and I-575, but not the ideas in a recently abandoned plan.  “I was, am and will be opposed to contracting away Georgia’s sovereignty for a period of 60 to 70 years over a transportation corridor that is so vital to our future,” Deal said.

The need to reform the state corrections system was a dominant theme when Deal addressed the General Assembly last year, and he returned to that theme with several announcements: $1.4 million to fund additional parole officers, $32.5 million for new prison beds, and three pre-release centers would be converted to residential substance abuse treatment centers at an initial cost of $5.7 million.

“We must make this investment,” Deal said.  “If we fail to treat the addict’s drug addiction, we haven’t taken the first in breaking the cycle of crime – a cycle that destroys lives and wastes taxpayer resources.  This is something we can do and with your help we will.”

Deal proposed $10 million in next year’s budget for new drug, DUI, mental health and veterans’ courts.  Expanding accountability courts was a key recommendation made by this past year’s special council on criminal justice reform. With a focus on rehabilitating people and closing the revolving door back into prison, Deal asked that the religious community, non-profits and other charitable organizations help former prisoners transition back into the general population.

“Let me be clear so there is no misinterpretation.  This is not a get out of jail free card,” Deal said.  “These reforms do not in any way diminish the seriousness of the seven deadly sins.  If you commit one of these, you will spend time in our prisons.  In fact, this transformation of our corrections efforts will ensure that we have the space and resources to incarcerate high-risk and violent offenders going forward.”

The Governor concluded his address by returning to the economic agenda that he discussed during his speech to 2,500 at the Georgia Chamber of Commerce “Eggs and Issues” breakfast.

Deal’s agenda includes repeal of the sales tax on energy, new sales and use tax exemptions for construction materials used in “projects of regional significance,” and updating two jobs tax credit programs.  “We will modernize our job tax credits to better incentivize small business growth and to help every Georgia community compete with their regional peers,” Deal said.

As mentioned above, Georgia finances have steadily improved since mid-2009 but the state is far from leaving the forest.  Georgia now has a $328 million reserve fund, an increase of 183 percent, but well below more than $1 billion on hand several years ago.  With an eye to change how the state manages money, Deal said 10 percent of all programs will begin zero-based budgeting, a process that requires justification for every line item in a budget before it is funded.  This idea was considered but never enacted during Governor Sonny Perdue’s administration.

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

January 10, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | Leave a comment

Deal Legislative Agenda Includes Changes to Jobs Tax Credit Programs

Mike Klein

Governor Nathan Deal has unveiled a package of tax reforms and tax credits which he says are essential to make Georgia the number one state in the nation to do business.  One theme was familiar – reducing the energy tax on manufacturing – but other elements were new from the Competiveness Initiative Task Force that the governor announced one year ago.

“Today, in executive offices right here in Georgia, business leaders are making the business decision to  expand manufacturing activity and facilities in neighboring states,” Deal said at the state Chamber of Commerce “Eggs and Issues” breakfast.  “Every time they make that decision, we miss out on new investment in our communities and new opportunities for Georgians.”

Deal’s address to some 2,500 breakfast-goers was the first of two major speeches today that outline his legislative agenda.  Tonight the Governor will deliver his second State of the State address to the General Assembly.  His 7:00pm speech will be carried on GPB-TV and Radio.

The Governor’s tax reform initiative has four primary proposals.  First, Deal called for elimination of sales tax paid on energy used in manufacturing.  “Because the sales tax is intended to be a tax on consumption, it should not be applied to business inputs,” the Governor said.

Second, Deal proposed sales and use tax exemptions for construction materials “used in projects of regional significance.  This is an important business climate issue and we need the ability to authorize this exemption when competing for projects creating large number of jobs.”

Governor Nathan Deal (File Photo)

Third, the Governor called for a re-do on the state’s job tax credits program that Deal said was written “in 1994 when the competitive landscape was far different than the one our businesses operate in today.”  Deal said the target would be assistance for small businesses.

“The present tax credit system is based on the mistaken notion that Atlanta competes with Rome or even Metter for jobs.  It doesn’t,” the Governor said.  “What we need is a tax credit program that embraces the realities on the ground – that Atlanta is competing with Charlotte and Dallas (and) that Floyd County is competing with operators just over the state line…”

Deal also proposed a re-do on the 2009 quality jobs tax credit program that designed to assist companies that bring high-paying positions into the state.  Currently, companies are required to create 50 or more jobs to obtain the credit.  The governor proposed reducing that to 15 jobs.

“Most companies now listed in the S&P 500 began with 50 or fewer employees,” Deal said. “We need to make the changes that will ensure more of these small, promising businesses are choosing to call Georgia home.”

The Governor emphasized his support for the regional transportation referendum that will be on the ballot this July, telling breakfast-goers, “We need new projects to maintain roads and bridges, that left untended, will cost taxpayers far more down the road.”

Deal said his Fiscal 2013 proposed budget will include $46.7 million in bonds to continue work on the Savannah River Harbor project, bring the total state commitment to more than $136 million over three years.  Georgia is awaiting federal decisions on hundreds of millions more.

The Governor sounded a cautiously optimistic tone – without details – in the decades long water dispute between Georgia, Florida and Alabama.  The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is under a federal court order decision to make new Lake Lanier basin withdrawal recommendations.

“Regarding our long-running battle with our neighbors to the West and South, my team is now negotiating with a more favorable legal backdrop, and we are in a much better position to strike a lasting deal that makes sense for Georgia,” Deal said.

Georgia’s population is predicted to grow by 4.6 million over the next two decades.  “It is imperative that we expand water supply across the state,” Deal said.  “Let me restate my priority. We must create new reservoirs to address Georgia’s long-term water needs!”

Deal said his proposed budget includes $45.7 million for water supply projects.  That is the second-year installment on a $300 million, four-year initiative Deal announced one year ago.  The Governor also said starting today local governments can apply for low-interest state loans for local water projects.

The Governor said this evening’s State of the State address will focus on education.

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

January 10, 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

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