Originally published February 17, 2011
Georgia will consider alternatives to incarceration of adult non-violent offenders in a sweeping criminal justice review announced Wednesday afternoon by Governor Nathan Deal. Reforms could include expanded drug, DUI and mental health courts, changes to sentencing laws, and alternatives to technical parole violations.
The governor announced the review at a capitol news conference. “Make no mistake. While this effort should ultimately uncover strategies that will save taxpayer dollars, first and foremost we are attacking the human cost of a society with too much crime, too many people behind bars, too many children growing up without a much needed parent and too many wasted lives.”
Deal stood with an historic coalition of executive, judicial and legislative leaders that included Supreme Court Chief Justice Carol Hunstein. “Our state can no longer afford to spend more than $1 billion a year to maintain the nation’s fourth highest incarceration rate,” Hunstein said. “I am confident that with this united front that you see here today we will accomplish our goals.”
Legislation was introduced Wednesday to create a Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform and a legislative special committee that would review council recommendations next January. This model should sound familiar; it was created last year to consider tax policy reform.
Chilling statistics illustrate the challenge. Deal said nationally one-in-100 adults is behind state prison or local jail bars, 3.6% of American children have a parent who is behind bars, and the trend is growing worse. Deal said one-in-77 adults was under correctional supervision during President Ronald Reagan’s first term; today the number is one-in-31 adults.
“In Georgia the numbers are even more troubling,” Deal said, citing one-in-13 Georgia adults in prison or jail, on probation or on parole. Georgia ranks tenth nationally in total population but it has the fourth largest incarceration population. The state prison population grew 4.6% during the past two years and 60,000 adults are behind bars.
“That growth has taken us to a place where our budgets no longer reflect our priorities,” Deal said. The governor said Georgia spends $3,800 dollars per year for each public school student, $6,800 per year for each university system student and $18,000 per year for each prison inmate. “That math simply does not work for Georgia,” Deal said.
Georgia joins southern states including Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana and South Carolina that have undertaken reforms. Texas shifted from incarceration for non-violent offenders to emphasis on community-based programs. Texas committed $241 million to new and expanded programs, but it saved up to $2 billion in deferred prison construction cost.
Rep. Jay Neal introduced legislation to establish the Special Council and the legislative special committee. “For decades we’ve been treating the symptoms of our addictive and mentally ill prisoners, the symptoms being their criminal behavior, rather than treating the root cause of those symptoms. As a result, spending on corrections has skyrocketed.” Neal said the corrections budget is the second fastest growing in state government behind Medicaid.
Deal said as many as three-fourths of all Georgia inmates have drug and / or alcohol addiction. The question is whether to continue to incarcerate non-violent offenders or divert them away from the prison system and into special courts, day-reporting centers and community programs.
“We know that drug courts that are scattered throughout the state are successful,” Deal said. “We do know that DUI courts, of which we have a few, are being very well received and their results are tremendous. We know that mental health courts, of which we have far too few, are also addressing a very important issue.”
House Speaker David Ralston cautioned against thinking Georgia has gone “somehow soft on crime. Let me say that this is exercising sensible and responsible leadership.” Lt.Gov. Casey Cagle spoke in favor of expanded sentencing options for prosecutors and judges. He added, “In this debate let’s not forget the victims (and) their right to seek justice.”