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.”
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.
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.
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 illegal drug weight.
“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.”
The special council estimated $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 council will remain in place and he described its work as 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.”