Georgia’s Criminal Justice System at a Crossroads: Tough Laws, Smart Decisions

By Michael Light

Today, Georgia stands at a crossroads in its criminal justice history where policymakers and lawmakers must pay careful attention to the thin line between tough laws and smart criminal justice decisions.

Over the last ten years Georgia has spent billions to build thousands of new “hard” prison beds while enacting some of the harshest laws in the country. The most violent and the worst repeat criminals are put away for long durations of time, some forever.

State and national information now suggests that Georgia has met its mission to incarcerate society’s worst.

Today, Georgia stands at a crossroads in its criminal justice history where policymakers and lawmakers must pay careful attention to the thin line between tough laws and smart criminal justice decisions.

Decisions must be made today that will keep the state criminal justice system fundamentally sound and operative well into the next century, while preserving scarce fiscal resources for other urgent needs.

But has Georgia, in its rush to deal with the violent crime problem, either overlooked, underestimated, or underfunded alternatives to deal with lesser first-time and nonviolent offenders and the youth who are at greatest risk to enter the adult correctional system?

Georgia’s massive correctional population
There are massive numbers of persons under correctional control in the state of Georgia. More than 320,000 adults are either in jail, in prison, on probation, or on parole.

The 10th-most populated state in the country, Georgia ranks eighth nationally in total prison population (42,000 inmates) and is sixth in both the number of people on probation (140,000) and on parole (20,000). Georgia also has the 10th-highest rate of incarceration in the U.S. (472 per 100,000 citizens) and the fourth-highest rate of probation (2,699 per 100,000 citizens).

At the county level, jails house an additional 29,000 inmates, including 17,500 who are unable to make bond and are awaiting trial.

Another 3,900 have been sentenced to county jail time, and, according to the county jailers, a backlog exists of as many as 3,600 state-sentenced inmates.

There are also more than 100,000 other offenders, primarily misdemeanants, who have been sentenced to county probation under the contract supervision of private probation companies. Combined, the numbers are staggering. Given that Georgia has approximately 7.5 million residents and more than 300,000 cases under justice control or supervision, almost one in every 25 Georgians is either in jail, on probation, in prison, or on parole.

This does not count the unknown number of persons on bond, those held in municipal jails or the estimated 70,000 kids under juvenile justice control.

Criminal laws are among the harshest
According to a recent U.S. Department of Justice report, Georgia is one of only 13 states that have passed mandatory minimum prison sentences for offenses that fall in all major categories of crime. These are sex offenses, violent crime, drug sales/trafficking, use/possession of a weapon, habitual traffic violators and drunk drivers.

For the worst criminals, Georgia has a “two strikes” law that prohibits parole for the first violent crimes and requires life without parole for the second conviction of any of the crimes known as the “seven deadly sins.”

Another recent analysis by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics found that nationally, Georgia ranked just 11th in the percent of sentence served. The same report also showed that percentage of sentence can often mask the reality of time served.

In that regard, Georgia was the 4th highest among the 50 states in the actual amount of time served for violent offenses.

Georgia is also among a handful of states that requires 100% of a sentence to be served for repeat felony offenders. Georgia’s recidivist statute prohibits parole for offenders who commit four or more felonies of any type.

For the remaining crimes, Georgia law provides judges with sentence ranges that, if used in their entirety, are among the most punishing in the country. For instance, a first-time burglar can be sentenced to as many as 20 years in prison on each count.
That long sentence, combined with a parole policy requiring residential burglars to serve at least 90% of sentence, means the criminal would serve a minimum of 18 years.

Billions for new prisons, less for alternatives
While billions of tax dollars were spent to increase and enhance Georgia prisons over the last decade, alternative bed space for less-dangerous offenders grew at a slower, disproportionate level.

Prisons. The state’s prison bed space increased 118% between 1989 and 1998, to 33,331 beds. Ten years ago, state prisons accounted for 82% of all state inmate beds; county work camps and transitional centers were the other 18%. By 1998, prisons increased to 87% of the bed space while work camps and transitional centers were reduced to 13%.

Work camps. While the overall number of work camp beds for low-security inmates grew slowly over the last decade, their proportion among all types of incarceration facilities actually decreased. Work camp beds increased by 29% over 10 years, to 3,700 beds. Proportionally, work camps constituted 15% of all beds in 1989 but were only 10% of that total in 1998.

Transitional centers. The availability of work release beds, despite a record of success, has been a low priority in Georgia. The proportion of beds decreased from 3% of all bed space (just 473 beds) in 1989 to less than 2% (only 720 beds) in 1998.

Fewer releases, more prison max-outs, less prison space
Use of parole as a mechanism to control prison overcrowding peaked in the early 1990s. After a threat of federal intervention into Georgia’s prison system in 1989, state leaders called upon the Parole Board to commence an accelerated release program, including almost 17,000 releases in 1991.

Since peaking in 1993, parole releases have been reduced by one-third. With fewer paroles, the number of inmates who complete their sentence in full (max-outs) grew to 4,140 in 1998, an almost 200% increase over the last 10 years.

Today, the 20,000 parolees under supervision in Georgia are the smallest segment, just 10% of the combined state correctional populations. Parolees are the minority in all crime categories, representing 8% of the persons convicted of violent crimes, 4% of sex offenders, 11% of property offenders, and a quarter of all persons convicted of drug sales.

Implementation of the parole-proof “two-strikes” law and the Parole Board’s 1997 decision to alter its policy to require persons convicted of 20 other violent crimes to serve 90% of their sentence has limited the Board’s authority over as many as one in every five new prison admissions. As a result, the Board’s ability to intercede in any future prison crowding crisis will be restricted. Still, there is a need for thousands more prison beds. The Board estimates that almost 14,000 additional prison beds, at a cost of $1.06 billion, must be added by the summer of 2003 just to keep up with Georgia’s current pace of incarceration.

Fewer plea bargains factor in the crowding of county jails

Despite increasing their bed space by 52% between 1993 and 1998, Georgia’s county jails were operating at 104% of capacity in December 1998. That’s because the number of jail inmates grew at a faster pace, 81%, increasing to almost 29,000 prisoners.

As of October 1, 1998, almost two-thirds of the inmates held in county jails were men and women awaiting trial. Evidence indicates that tougher laws like the “two-strikes” legislation and stricter parole policies have defendants hoping for a lesser conviction in a jury trial.

This is especially true among violent crime defendants, where the number going to trial has more than doubled in the last decade, from 7.9% in 1988, to 17.1% in 1998. The overall percentage of all crimes going to trial has also doubled, from 3.7% in 1988, to 7.8% in 1998.

Jails have also suffered the impact of the backlog of state-sentenced inmates. Despite the huge increase in state prison beds, the backlog reached almost 3,300 in October 1998, its highest level since the spring of 1990. The ramifications of crowding are felt in every county affected, but the strain on small county budgets is especially severe.

An overwhelmed, underfunded state probation system
Probation was one segment of the justice system particularly hard-hit by Georgia’s emphasis on tougher laws and aggressive prison construction. Limited spending for probation alternatives has made it difficult for the courts and 700 probation officers to adequately supervise the more than 140,000 probationers living throughout Georgia.

According to a 1997 report from the Southern Legislative Conference, at that time Georgia probation officers supervised the largest caseloads among the southeastern states, almost 170 per officer. The ratio is even higher today. According to the same report, Georgia devotes only limited funds per probationer, near last among the southern states, to probation supervision.

Today, almost 75% of all Georgia offenders are probationers, including most drug possession and DUI/habitual offender cases, most property offenders, and close to one-half of all violent, sex offender, and drug sale cases (See Table I, Georgia’s Correctional Population).



Violent Personal 18,910 48% 17,576 44% 3,036 8% 39,522
Sex Offense 4,449 46% 4,835 50% 336 3% 9,620
Property 48,470 75% 8,865 14% 7,080 11% 64,415
Drug Sales 6,835 48% 3,362 24% 3,975 28% 14,172
Drug Possession 32,240 83% 2,826 7% 3,678 9% 38,744
Habitual Violator/D.U.I. 14,122 89% 736 5% 1,086 7% 15,944
Other 15,446 87% 1,299 7% 926 5%




39,499* 20,117 200,088
% of State Total


20% 10% 100%
* Does not include inmate backlog in county jails


Prison growth overshadows probation alternatives
Probation facilities — detention centers, diversion centers and probation boot camps — provide Georgia judges with lower-cost alternatives to the long-term prison bed space better suited for violent and repeat offenders. Still, there are only 4,500 alternative probation facility beds currently available to judges who have more than 140,000 probationers under sentence.

Probation detention centers. Popular with judges who want short-term incarceration, then probation for the offender, PDC’s constitute 67% of alternative facility beds. The 3,000 PDC beds have not kept up with demand, with 200 probationers currently on a waiting list.
One reason for their slow progression has been a decision by the Department of Corrections to convert some detention center facilities to full-scale prisons.

Diversion centers. As work release facilities for probationers ordered to pay monetary penalties, diversion centers keep offenders in the community as working taxpayers. Underutilized, they have seen negligible growth over the last decade, increasing from 753 beds in 1989 to 994 beds in 1998. The waiting list for these facilities now stands at 1,200.

Probation boot camps. These have also grown at a slow rate, from 315 beds in 1991 to 450 beds in 1998.
Some judges admit they are sentencing offenders to hard prison beds who could remain in the community if an acceptable level of supervision and treatment resources were available. They see probation caseloads that are too big, resulting in little offender surveillance. They also see long waiting lists for community corrections’ facilities while probation violators take up valuable county jail beds. District attorneys and sheriffs have also indicated their frustration with the lack of alternatives for felony probation technical violators.

The public supports effective alternatives for nonviolent offenders
Research has shown that the public approves of a cost-effective correctional approach that keeps dangerous criminals behind bars while placing nonviolent offenders in less expensive facilities. John Doble and Associates, a public opinion research firm, has worked with at least 10 states to understand public views on issues of crime and punishment.
Doble’s research has shown remarkably similar results in states as different as Alabama, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Vermont and North Carolina. In every state surveyed, four common principles emerged. The public wants
–the justice system to protect them
–offenders held accountable to restore
victim losses and communities
damaged by crime
–offenders to change so that criminal
behavior is not repeated
–more citizen involvement in the
justice system

There is no doubt violent offenders should be kept in prison. On the other hand, citizens understand that government cannot afford to incarcerate every offender, so they are willing to allow other types of offenders to remain in the community under effective supervision.

Taxpayers expect a strict supervision plan that includes regular contact with a probation or parole officer, counseling and drug testing, mandatory employment, and involvement in programs proven to break the cycle of crime.
Finally, the public wants to play a meaningful role in the criminal justice system, one where the voices and views of victims and other community members are heard and considered.

What will slow Georgia’s return-to-prison rate?
Historically, whether completing a sentence in full, or as a parolee or probationer, 40% of Georgia offenders are back in prison within three years. Four major factors are most closely associated with recidivism: 1) alcohol and/or drug use, 2) mental health issues, 3) unemployment, and 4) lack of education.

Substance abuse. Drug and alcohol abuse is widespread among Georgia offenders. As many as 75% of Georgia prison inmates have a history of substance abuse. In the City of Atlanta, drug testing of persons arrested for new crimes found almost 75% testing positive for cocaine. In fact, it is estimated that the vast majority of all crime is somehow related to drugs and/or alcohol.

In other words, if the person was not caught selling or using, he or she was stealing, robbing, even killing for drugs.

Many inmates leave prison with insufficient substance abuse treatment, primarily due to the vast numbers of offenders who need intense, meaningful counseling.

For those individuals whose treatment did have an impact, there must also be a continuation outside of prison. Unfortunately, there is a critical shortage of affordable and effective substance abuse services in the community.

Mental health cases. Today, there are more than 3,500 inmates (8% of the prison population) housed in prison mental health units with more than 2,800 of these offenders receiving psychotropic medications. The number of probationers on the street with mental health problems is unknown, but can be expected to be higher than the prison population.
The availability of community-based mental health treatment options for prison max-outs, parolees and probationers has declined while the number of offenders with mental health problems has dramatically increased.

Unemployed. Information gathered from inmates on admission to prison shows that almost 50% were unemployed or employed only part-time at the time of arrest. Statistics show that employed offenders are significantly less likely to commit new crimes.
Uneducated. Two-thirds of Georgia inmates failed to reach the 12th grade and, for most, their average reading, spelling, and math level falls below a 7th grade level.

These four factors are highly related to the propensity for committing crimes. If recidivism is to be reduced, there must be adequate and functional drug treatment, effective educational/vocational training, and readily-available public resources for mental health treatment.

And to prevent crime before it occurs, there must be a statewide commitment to quality education for Georgia’s youth, an expectation for structured lives for our children, and a demand for better parenting from our adults.

Future key: more effective intervention with juveniles
Crime statistics show that as many as 75% of Georgia juvenile offenders eventually become involved in the adult corrections system.Many of the juveniles who graduate to the adult system were failures in the educational system, came from single-parent homes, lived in poverty situations or where alcohol and drug abuse were common, and were raised in situations of family criminality.In fact, it is estimated that in Georgia today more than 200,000 children have a father who is either in prison, on probation, or on parole.Today, Georgia’s juvenile justice system is overflowing with child offenders. Census data indicates that by the year 2005 there will be a 19% increase in the number of Georgia adults in the 18-24 age group, primarily from the aging of today’s youth. If the juvenile offender issue is not dealt with immediately, the state faces a grim prospect for slowing future growth in the expensive adult prison system.

At the crossroads
Georgia has reached a crossroads in its correctional history. Tough laws and policies have been enacted that assure long confinement for the violent core of Georgia’s criminal element.

But what is to be done with the remaining offenders, especially the nonviolent, first-time entrants into the system? What of the offenders who are uneducated or unemployed, alcohol and/or drug abusers, and those who are mentally ill?

Moreover, what can be done to slow the flow of thousands of troubled children from the juvenile justice system to the adult courts?

Georgia can opt to take one direction and allocate billions more to house those offenders in expensive prisons. The state can also take another route and consider expansion of prison alternatives proven to work at less cost and with greater success.

In Connecticut, the establishment of a continuum of alternative sanctions that emphasize swift and meaningful punishment has succeeded in diverting more than 40,000 offenders from “hard” prison beds and relieved overcrowded local jails, all the while saving taxpayers more than $600 million in prison costs.

A coordinated system of restitution to victims, reparative work in the community, readily-available substance abuse, educational/vocational, and counseling programs, and even parenting classes are hallmarks of that state’s nationally-recognized criminal justice strategy.

Balancing tough laws with smart decisions will ensure that the taxpayer dollar is best spent and that citizens are well-protected. Without smart thinking and effective, citizen-approved alternatives to incarceration, the weight of a potentially prisons-heavy correctional budget could one day threaten the fiscal stability of not only the state, but its counties as well.

Michael Light is the Director of the Georgia Parole Board, Office of Criminal Justice Research. This article is reprinted with permission from the March 1999 edition of Georgia County Government Magazine, published by the Association County Commissioners of Georgia, the 85-year-old education, training and legislative advocacy organization of all 159 Georgia county governments. ACCG may be reached on the Web or by writing 50 Hurt Plaza, Suite 1000, Atlanta, Georgia 30303.