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 had 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.
I thank you for what you do. For 15 years you’ve been researching and writing on issues that matter. You take on tough questions, you apply innovative thinking, you push for action, and you do it all without regard to politics.