Tough on Crime, Smart on Criminal Justice Spending

By Kelly McCutchen

Georgia’s prison population has grown 35 percent over the last decade and is projected to continue growing over the next five years.  Public safety is bolstered when offenders who are violent, dangerous or career criminals are put behind bars, but too often lower-level offenders emerge from prison as more hardened criminals.

Unfortunately, about two-thirds of those admitted to prison in Georgia have been convicted of a non-violent offense.  The “lock ’em up and throw away the key” approach has failed this state:  The streets aren’t necessarily safer by locking up low-risk, nonviolent offenders. The state spends over $1 billion annually on corrections, yet nearly 35 percent of inmates released return to custody within three years.

The problem is that the current corrections system too frequently fails to break the cycle of crime, reform offenders and maximize the public safety benefit for every Georgia taxpayer’s dollar spent. That could change for the better soon: A new commission created by Gov. Nathan Deal and the Legislature is scheduled to issue reform recommendations in November.

Georgia taxpayers can get a better return for their public safety investment once lawmakers realize they can be simultaneously tough on crime and smart on criminal justice spending.  Conservative, commonsense reforms that began in Texas have spread across the South to Kentucky, South Carolina and Arkansas.  Conservative leaders in these states have led the charge in changing policies to ensure that prisons are prioritized for violent and dangerous offenders while low-risk, nonviolent offenders are properly supervised and required to work, pay restitution and seek treatment.

Right on Crime – a conservative, national organization whose statement of principles has been signed by such noted conservatives as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Bill Bennett and Ed Meese among others – has worked in many of these Southern states to promote criminal justice reform.

This initiative, which advocates a corrections system that emphasizes accountability, personal responsibility, limited government and fiscal sustainability, launched this week in Georgia.

Texas is a prime example of how Right on Crime’s principles, when implemented, have produced overwhelmingly positive results. In 2007, the Lone Star state was faced with the prospect of building 17,000 new prison beds to accommodate the projected growth in its prison population.

Instead of funneling hundreds of millions of dollars into expanding an already-bloated prison system, Texas strengthened probation supervision. The state gave probation departments funds for lowering caseloads and implementing swift, sure and commensurate sanctions for probation violations in exchange for committing to reduce the rate at which their probationers fail and, thus, must be revoked to prison.

The state expanded the capacity of drug courts and community-based programs for addicted offenders and those with mental illness. At the same time it bolstered effective inmate and parole programs to help ensure that the cycle of crime stopped when offenders left the corrections system.

These reforms saved Texas more than $2 billion. It also resulted in the state holding 7,000 fewer inmates than if no policy changes were enacted. A prison was shuttered because of the drop in prison population, a first in Texas history.  Most importantly, Texas’ crime rate has dropped 10.8 percent, its lowest point since 1973.

There’s no need to travel to Texas to see that the Right on Crime approach works. Georgia’s 28 drug courts provide offenders with drug treatment and vocational training as an alternative to a prison sentence. These programs have had tremendous success.

The state’s drug courts earned praise in in the Economist magazine earlier this year:  “All of this may sound paternalistic, but it works,” an editorial noted.  “A statewide study in Georgia found the two-year recidivism rate among drug-court participants was 7%, compared with 15% for those on probation alone and 29% for drug-users who served time in state prison.”

Alternative sentencing such as drug courts helps Georgia break the cycle of crime. As a bonus, it produces savings. Each traditional prison stay costs taxpayers at least $10,000 more than a drug-court sentence. Certainly, some offenders must remain behind bars to keep the public safe and that is worth the investment. For many nonviolent offenders, however, drug courts are a viable option.

Georgia’s corrections system has benefited enormously from the limited use of drug courts and day reporting centers. But there is still much to be done when it comes to criminal justice reform. With a prison population expected to approach 60,000 in the next five years, it is critical that the state’s leaders do more to reform criminal justice.

Kelly McCutchen is president and CEO of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent think tank that proposes practical, market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views 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 (September 30, 2011). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliations are cited.