Criminal Justice Reform Unshackles Georgians

By Benita M. Dodd

Appeals Court Judge Michael P. Boggs, co-chair of the Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform since 2012, makes a passionate case for the strides that have taken Georgia to the forefront in criminal justice reform.

The Waycross jurist recalls presiding over a drug court in six rural counties in South Georgia.

“I asked defendants three questions,” Boggs told the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s annual Legislative Luncheon recently.

“When did you first drop out of school? Ninth grade.

“What drug did you first start using? Marijuana.

“When did you first start using it? Age 13.

Boggs asked the luncheon attendees to guess: “How many of the first 6,000 criminal defendants I dealt with in felony criminal court in six rural counties had a diploma? What percentage?”

He answered his own question: “The number is 34.

“People. Thirty-four people.”

The shocking statistic is just one Boggs shares as he speaks on how and why Georgia’s reforms came about.

The week before speaking to the Faith and Freedom Coalition, Boggs was at a Georgia Public Policy Foundation Leadership Breakfast, discussing Georgia’s progress and future.

Judge Michael P. Boggs, co-chair of the Council on Criminal Justice Reform, chats with attendees at the February 17 Georgia Public Policy Foundation Leadership BReakfast

Judge Michael P. Boggs, co-chair of the Council on Criminal Justice Reform, chats with attendees at the February 17 Georgia Public Policy Foundation Leadership Breakfast.

30 percent recidivism rate

Between 1990 and 2011 – before reforms began – Georgia’s prison population doubled, and one in 13 Georgians was under some form of correctional supervision. Despite a $1.1 billion prison budget, 30 percent of inmates released were back in custody within three years.

“We weren’t doing much with taxpayer dollars to improve public safety, change people’s lives and improve the lives of not only the returning citizens but the citizens of Georgia who were paying those exorbitant expenses,” Boggs said.

While a bed in the prison system costs $18,000, a bed in a youth detention center costs the state $90,000. And Georgia was facing a juvenile offender recidivism rate of up to 65 percent.

The goal for Georgia was to go from being tough on crime to being smart on crime, Boggs said. At the time, the adult prison system was projected to grow 8 percent to 60,000 inmates by 2016.

Incremental reforms began, and Georgia ended its dubious distinction as the leading state in the world’s leading nation on imprisonment. In 2012, criminal justice reform focused on adult sentencing reform. In 2013, the focus was juvenile justice reform. In 2014, the focus became offender re-entry: helping those who had served their time assimilate back into their communities. In 2015, the reforms targeted misdemeanor probationers.

Among the reforms:

  • Changing the felony threshold for burglary, theft and forgery from $500 to $1,500, as in other states.
  • Weight-based (stratified) sentencing for cocaine possession.
  • Expanding accountability courts ($20 million). Today, in addition to drug and DUI courts, the state has mental health and veterans’ accountability courts.
  • Funding for education in the Department of Corrections ($10 million), which now has its own charter school, allowing inmates to earn a high school diploma instead of merely a GED.

Among the results:

  • Instead of the expected 8 percent increase in inmates by 2016, in 2015 Georgia had the lowest prison population since 2002, avoiding the $264 million cost of adding capacity.
  • The number of African-Americans entering prison in 2015 was 9,983 – the lowest number since 1988.
  • An electronic system improved the transition from county jails to state prison, saving the taxpayers millions of dollars when Georgia reduced the need to pay counties to house inmates, and expediting greater treatment options for offenders.
  • By capping stays at probation detention centers to six months, the backlog of 600-700 jail inmates waiting for years for a spot all but disappeared. Two centers were converted to residential substance abuse treatment centers.
  • Community programs in 29 largely metropolitan counties representing about 70 percent of Georgia’s at-risk youth accepted grants to reduce commitments to youth detention centers by 15 percent. Commitments declined a whopping 54 percent in the first year, shrinking the “pipeline to prison” and recidivism risk, as well.
  • “In 2011, only about 800 out of 56,000 inmates engaged in any kind of education program,” Governor Deal shared at the Faith and Freedom Coalition luncheon. He added, proudly, “Today, 25,000 are involved.”

More beds for violent offenders

In 2011, before the reforms began, 63 percent of adult offender inmates were classified as violent. Today, that percentage is up to 67 percent. Georgians expect prison beds to house dangerous offenders to preserve public safety.

Georgia still has a long way to go: The state’s 471,067 probationers equate to 6,161 per 100,000 residents; the national average is 1,560 per 100,000. The average probation for non-violent offenders is 9.95 years versus 11.88 for violent offenders. Still needing reform are mandatory minimum sentencing and long-term consequences for first offenders. 

Nevertheless, “Georgia is indeed a thought leader on the issues of ‘smart on crime,’ responsible and thoughtful criminal justice policies,” Boggs said at the Foundation event. “Indeed, those are … now permeating their way to Washington and there are conversations in D.C. about emulating at least in the BOP (federal Bureau of Prisons) some of the strategies employed in states like Georgia and Texas.”

At the Faith and Freedom Coalition Legislative Luncheon, Gov. Deal gave credit to Boggs and his commission for its recommendations and to the bipartisan, “near unanimous” basis of criminal justice reform at the Legislature.

“We live in a day and a time where it is very difficult to find issues that can be supported on a bipartisan basis,” Deal said. “In my opinion, that is regrettable. I think it is incumbent on all of us to try to find more of those issues where we can bring people together across racial lines, across party affiliation lines and just do what is good for the people, whether it be here in the state of Georgia or in the United States as a whole.”

Attorney General Sam Olens, speaking after the Governor, added, “You cannot in any way, shape or form discount the effect that the criminal justice reform that has come from this governor will greatly affect our state for many years to come. Many governors have initiatives, many governors have desires but we are the national leader in this area, and it is an area that you want to be the national leader in.”

Olens said because of the legislative reforms, “and what we were learning in our national AG meetings, I came forward with a program called ‘We’re Not Going to Take It,’ where we go to high schools and we tell the kids about the dangers of prescription drug abuse.

“We tell them how easy it is to go from the opioids to heroin and that they have too much to look forward to rather than end up in jails or a casket prematurely.”

At the Faith and Freedom Coalition, Boggs told the group: “In all the states that I have been … all ask the similar question, which is ‘How did you do it?’

“And the answer is, you can’t do it without the exceptional leadership from the executive branch that we have had in Georgia and that we continue to experience.”

The strategies the Criminal Justice Reform Council proposed were intended to do three things: Hold defenders accountable, save taxpayers money and increase public safety. All indications are they’re doing just that. 

View Judge Boggs’ speech and PowerPoint presentation at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation’s Leadership Breakfast here.

Author’s note: One of the most difficult requests you can make of a free-market state think tank is to ask for a direct example of its influence on policy. It’s rarely an easy path between cause and effect; unlike the legislative session, policy proposals are not seasonal. Typically, think tanks’ policy ideas are planted, cultivated, fertilized and nurtured quietly for years before yielding fruit when a policymaker embraces then enacts the reforms. By then, the source of the initiative is long forgotten.

Case in point: Georgia’s criminal justice reform.

Five years ago in February 2011, as the governor held a news conference in the state Capitol to announce the formation of the Council on Criminal Justice Reform, he credited the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, “for its leadership and focus on the issue, which heavily impacts families’ lives and taxpayers’ pocketbooks.”

“The Foundation’s Criminal Justice Initiative pushed the problems to the forefront, proposed practical solutions, brought in leaders from other states to share examples, and created this nonpartisan opportunity,” Deal added.

Today, the Foundation is as proud as any parent as Georgia surges ahead in criminal justice reform. Our role is rarely acknowledged but, as Harry S. Truman is reputed to have said, “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”

Benita M. Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent think tank that proposes market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the view of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.

© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (March 11, 2016). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and her affiliations are cited.