By Kelly McCutchen
Protection to person and property is the paramount duty of government. This phrase, which appears on the first page of the Georgia Constitution, highlights the importance of the criminal justice system. In keeping with this focus, the State of Georgia recently enacted sweeping criminal justice reforms designed to reduce crime rates, limit recidivism and lower costs. As Atlanta’s leaders seek to address criminal justice, it would be wise to follow the state’s lead.
As of 2010, one in every 70 Georgia adults were incarcerated, the fourth highest percentage in the country, and one in every 13 Georgia adults were under criminal justice supervision, the highest rate in the country. Nearly one-third of the adult inmates who were released from prison were back within three years; the recidivism rates among juveniles released from state prisons was even higher at 65 percent. These shocking statistics motivated state leaders in 2011 to propose a “smart on crime” approach designed to divert non-violent offenders to more effective and less expensive programs, while freeing up expensive prison space for more dangerous felons.
In 2012 and 2013, the Georgia General Assembly unanimously passed sweeping reforms to the adult and juvenile criminal justice systems. Taxpayer savings were estimated to be more than $300 million. Today, we are already seeing the positive results: savings of $20 million and a ten percent drop in the state prison population. Although it is too early to analyze the impact on crime or recidivism rates, the reforms appear to be working. Several states have passed similar reforms, citing Georgia and Texas as their models.
The City of Atlanta has similar problems: an overflowing jail, high crime rates in some parts of the city and very high recidivism rates. Although the crime rate is trending down, the rate is still too high.
The Atlanta Police Department appears to be doing many things right: increasing the number of patrol officers, partnering with their peers in Los Angeles, New York, London and even the Israel National Police to share training and crime prevention methods, and using the same statistical analysis that helped New York City dramatically reduce its crime rate.
The Fulton County court system is also moving in the right direction, establishing several special courts, or accountability courts, to focus on the underlying issues driving criminal activity. The Fulton County Drug Court focuses on substance abuse problems, the Behavioral Health Court focuses on mental health issues and the Veterans Court focuses on veterans with conditions such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Diverting individuals arrested for non-violent criminal activity into an accountability court is typically far more effective than incarceration, and less costly for taxpayers.
Despite these efforts, the recidivism rate in Atlanta remains too high. Recognizing this, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed made criminal justice a major focus of his recent re-election campaign. He has followed through with the creation of a Repeat Offenders Commission. The Commission, similar to the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform that drove state reforms, is comprised of members from every area of the criminal justice system.
The Commission will likely find that judges need better information and more options in sentencing. Sophisticated risk assessment is now being used around the nation to help judges determine which individuals will respond best to diversion programs. Judges also need a graduated array of sanctions at their disposal, such as expansion of day-reporting centers, more capacity in existing accountability courts and more community resources. Finally, Fulton County should work closely with the state as it focuses on education and skills training to prepare these individuals to obtain the best anti-recidivism program – a job.
Leadership by the Mayor and the creation of the Repeat Offender Commission shows Atlanta is serious about addressing crime. Georgia is a nationally-recognized leader in criminal justice reform thanks to leadership at the state level. Atlanta should follow the state’s playbook and become a leader among major cities in fighting crime.
This commentary by Kelly McCutchen, president and CEO of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, was published in the June 27, 2014, edition of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.