The Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform has released its 2016 Report, which provides a summary of progress to date and a list of recommendations. Below are excerpts from the report’s executive summary.
It is often said that the states are our laboratories of democracy. With criminal justice reform, this is undeniably true. Over the past decade, more than two dozen states have enacted significant reforms to their sentencing and correctional systems, changes that have improved public safety while holding offenders accountable and reducing taxpayer costs. Unlike so many policy issues in America today, criminal justice reform has been embraced with overwhelming bipartisan support. As 2016 begins, Congress and President Obama are acknowledging the substantial progress unfolding in the states and taking steps to apply similar solutions to the struggling federal corrections system.
Georgia has been at the forefront of this movement. During the past five years, Governor Nathan Deal and the General Assembly have adopted a series of transformative sentencing and correctional improvements with vigorous support from across the political spectrum. The Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform has been honored to help guide this effort. …
The Council’s first phase of work followed a period of unprecedented growth in Georgia’s prison system. Between 1990 and 2011, the adult prison population more than doubled to nearly 56,000 inmates. State spending on corrections soared right along with that growth, rising from $492 million to more than $1 billion annually. As 2011 began, Georgia’s incarceration rate – 1 in 70 adults behind bars – was the fourth highest in the nation, and another 8 percent jump in the inmate population was predicted over the next five years. Meanwhile, the state’s recidivism rate had hovered at roughly 30% for a decade, suggesting that Georgia’s heavy reliance on imprisonment was, at best, producing marginal public safety benefits.
In its first year, the Council produced a set of policy recommendations that prioritized prison beds for violent, career criminals while expanding probation, drug and mental health courts and other sentencing alternatives for those convicted of less serious crimes. …
The Council’s next target was Georgia’s troubled juvenile justice system, which was plauged by high costs and disappointing results. After an extensive review, the Council concluded that too many low-level youth were being placed in out-of-home facilities, in part because there were few community-based sentencing options in many parts of the state. Despite a budget exceeding $300 million annually, Georgia’s juvenile justice approach was doing litle to help troubled youth turn around their lives. More than half the youth in the system were re-adjudicated delinquent or convicted of a criminal offense within three years of release, a rate that had held steady since 2003. For those released from secure youth development campuses, the recidivism rate was even higher – a disturbing 65 percent.
Seeking to reduce juvenile reoffending and control costs, the Council produced a package of policy recommendations designed to divert more lower level offenders into evidence-based community programs with a proven track record. …
The centerpiece of the Council’s work in 2014 was the state’s third leg of criminal justice reform, the Georgia Prisoner Reentry Initiative (GA-PRI). Approved by the Council at the end of 2013, the GA-PRI has two primary objectives: to improve public safety by reducing crimes committed by former offenders, thereby reducing the number of crime victims, and secondly, to boost success rates of Georgians leaving prison by providing them with a seamless plan of services and supervision, beginning at the time of their incarceration and continuing through their reintegration in the community. Backed by significant grant support and a total of $60 million in state and federal funding, Georgia’s investment in reentry is unmatched anywhere in the United States.
As the Council enters its sixth year of work, there is mounting evidence that the reforms enacted to date are improving the effectiveness of Georgia’s criminal justice system and producing benefits for taxpayers as well as offenders and their families. On the adult side, one key indicator is the continuing decline of Georgia’s prison population, which stood at 51,822 at the end of 2015 – down from a peak of 54,895 in July, 2012.
Annual commitments to prison have dropped substantially as well. In 2015, Georgia recorded 18,139 commitments, the lowest number since 2002 and down from a peak of 21,655 in 2009. These downward trends stand in stark contrast to earlier projections for system growth. Prior to passage of the adult reforms, Georgia’s inmate population was expected to increase by 8 percent over the next five years. Had the state followed that trajectory, its already overcrowded system would have swelled to 60,000 inmates, requiring the state to spend an additional $264 million to expand capacity.
“Georgia is a real, genuine success story. What they do really makes a difference and will be looked at by other states and other conservatives across the nation.” Vikrant Reddy, Senior Policy Analyst, Right on Crime, The New Republic, March 31, 2015
Georgia is also making progress on reserving its most expensive correctional sanction – prison – for its most serious offenders while strengthening accountability courts and other alternative punishments for less serious lawbreakers. At the start of 2016, the proportion of violent and sex offenders in prison stood at 67 percent, up from 58 percent in January 2009.
Because of state appropriations to expand and strengthen accountability courts, as well as state-funded incentives to create new ones, Georgia now has 131 such courts operating in the state. Indeed, only two judicial circuits lack an accountability court, and both are in the early stages of starting one. In addition to existing participants, during last year alone nearly 3,500 new participants were added to an accountability court program.
On another front, Georgia has dramatically reduced the backlog of state inmates housed in county jails and awaiting transfer to a prison or Probation Detention Center. In the past, the Georgia Department of Corrections spent more than $20 million annually to keep state inmates in local jails pending their transfer to prison. In FY2015, state spending on such subsidies was just $5,760, freeing up funds for reinvestment in a variety of other initiatives.
Within the juvenile system, progress has been particularly encouraging. Since 2013, Georgia has decreased its population of youth in secure confinement by 17 percent and reduced the number of youth awaiting placement by 51 percent. During that same timeframe, overall juvenile commitments to the Department of Juvenile Justice have dropped 33 percent, demonstrating that more youths’ needs are being met in the community. Indeed, every judicial circuit in Georgia now has access to an evidencebased intervention for juveniles as the state has steadily increased the availability of programs proven to reduce juvenile recidivism. …
2016 Adults System Recommendations
While phasing in Georgia’s landmark reentry initiative remained a priority for the Council this year, members also made headway on many other significant challenges.
Fortifying the First Offender Act
Known as Georgia’s “second chance law,” the First Offender Act was enacted in 1968 to allow certain first-time offenders to avoid both a conviction and a public record if they successfully complete their court sentence. The law also protects these individuals from employment discrimination on the basis of their charge. Its intent is to give some firsttime offenders a chance to learn from their mistake and move on with their lives without the burden of a conviction. People charged with a DUI or a serious violent or sexual felony are not eligible.
In 2014, the Council made three recommendations to ensure eligible offenders receive protections they are entitled to under the law, all of which were adopted by the General Assembly in the 2015 legislative session. One of the recommendations was embodied in HB 310, which required that all Georgians who qualify for a second chance under the Act be informed of their eligibility. The new law also allows those who were not informed of their eligibility to petition a court for retroactive first offender treatment with the consent of the prosecuting attorney’s office.
This year, the Council makes several additional recommendations related to the Act, many of them related to the confidentiality of records and creating protections from employment discrimination. The Council concluded that such changes are needed because the methods used to prevent first offenders from having a public record have been outpaced by technology and the expansion of the private background investigation industry. Also, despite the law prohibiting employment discrimination, some employers continue to use successful first offender cases to deny employment. Throughout our deliberations on this issue, the Council strived to strike the appropriate balance between the public’s and employers’ rights to know and giving first offenders the intended protection of the law.
Lifting the Food Stamps Ban for Felony Drug Offenders
In 1996, Congress enacted the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PWORA), which included a federal lifetime ban on food stamps for those with felony drug convictions. The ban amounts to a lifetime of punishment, and although it does not target particular demographic groups, various social and criminal justice dynamics have caused the ban to have a disproportionate effect on women, children and African-Americans. States can “opt out” and exempt residents from the lifetime ban completely, or enact a less punitive version, and the vast majority of states have chosen one of those options. Georgia is one of only three states that have maintained the ban in its entirety.
Data compiled by the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute show that because of the ban, Georgia is missing out on $10.4 million in federal food stamp benefits each year. Approximately 555 otherwise eligible Georgians are denied food stamps each month because of a drug felony. This number translates to about 6,665 people per year, not including those individuals discouraged from seeking benefits. About 1,850 children are included in these denied benefits each year. Among individuals denied benefits, many were not users, but rather sold drugs to provide income for their families.
After a careful review of the issue, the Council recommends that Georgia remove the lifetime ban on food stamps for felony drug offenders in its entirety. Doing so will not only bring millions of dollars of federal revenue to the state, but also remove a barrier to successful reentry, enabling Georgians who have completed their sentences to more easily move past their offense, become law-abiding citizens and provide for their families.
Misdemeanor Probation Reform
In 2014, the Council conducted an extensive review of Georgia’s misdemeanor probation system, which had been the subject of broad criticism in audits, in the media and by the courts. As a result of that review, the Council produced 12 recommendations to address deficiencies and improve transparency and fairness in misdemeanor probation supervision services.
Adding to that work in 2015, the Council developed additional recommendations to increase fairness in misdemeanor cases where it is alleged that the probationer has only failed to pay or failed to report. Specifically, the Council recommends the institution of affidavit requirements before probation officers may seek arrest warrants for failure to report in misdemeanor cases. In addition, the Council recommends requiring a hearing before a misdemeanor probationer may be arrested solely for failure to pay. The Council also recommends that for pay-only probationers, supervision should terminate automatically when all fines and statutory surcharges are paid in full. Individuals on payonly probation, and those serving consecutive misdemeanor sentences, should further be allowed to file a motion for early termination of probation supervision.
Other Adult Reforms
In addition to these adult system improvements, the Council also recommends that the General Assembly extend parole eligibility to an additional category of non-violent recidivist drug offenders; authorize in Georgia statute the creation of two additional accountability courts (a Family Dependency Treatment Court and an Operating Under the Influence Court, also known as DUI Court); extend “ban the box” protections to certain applicants for professional licensure whose criminal history includes a felony; clarify that Georgia’s Quality Basic Education (QBE) formula funding can be used for offenders age 22 and under who are enrolled in an approved state charter school; enact several changes to regulations governing driver’s license suspensions; and various alcohol monitoring practices.
2016 Juvenile Justice Recommendations
The Council also addressed several significant issues that have surfaced pursuant to the landmark juvenile justice legislation adopted in 2013. While juvenile reform has had many positive impacts on Georgia’s correctional system for youth, one unintended Report of the Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform – 2016 10 consequence has been the juvenile courts’ expanded use of secure detention for a younger population than such facilities are equipped to serve. Research shows that earlier involvement with the juvenile system leads to an increase in negative outcomes for youth, including higher recidivism levels, a greater likelihood of not graduating from high school, and future involvement with the adult correctional system. By expanding the detention of younger children and exposing such youth to the trauma correlated with such detention, Georgia is, in effect, voiding the beneficial effects of juvenile reform for this most vulnerable population.
In response, the Council recommends statutory language that would prohibit secure detention for all first-time youthful offenders aged thirteen and under, except for those charged with the most serious offenses, where a clear public safety issue is present. Secure detention in these serious cases may only be considered if indicated by the validated assessment instrument, and with judicial approval.
On another issue crucial to the safety and well being of Georgia’s youth, the Council examined the referral systems that feed the juvenile justice system – especially those in schools, which are one of the largest sources of delinquency complaints filed in juvenile courts. Given research that shows the vast majority of juveniles outgrow delinquency and criminal behavior with involvement in school and work, the Council recommends mandating the use of educational approaches to address a student’s problematic behavior in school and improving the fairness of school disciplinary proceedings. The Council also proposes the establishment of equitable standards and mandating meaningful training for school disciplinary officers and tribunal personnel. Finally, the Council recommends that school systems utilizing the services of a School Resource Officer (“SRO”) operate pursuant to an agreed upon memorandum of understanding. It is the Council’s intention that these recommendations go hand-in-glove with the work and recommendations of the Georgia Education Reform Commission.
To have an organization dedicated to the study of the problems that face Georgia in a bipartisan way….is absolutely one of the finest things that’s happened to our state.