Criminal Justice Reform Bill Has Mission Creep Issues

By Mike Klein

Mike Klein, GPPF Forum Editor

Thursday morning a House and Senate special committee will gather to discuss mission creep.  That is not the official name of the hearing, also known as the first hearing to consider criminal justice reform legislation, but it might just as well have been advertised as mission creep.

Georgia criminal justice reform legislation is many things, nearly all of them positive, but it also is an example of mission creep.  To understand whether House Bill 1176 hit or missed the mark, let’s begin with the assignment given to last year’s Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform:

“Address the growth of the state’s prison population, contain corrections costs and increase efficiencies and effectiveness that result in better offender management;  Improve public safety by reinvesting a portion of the savings into strategies that reduce crime and recidivism; and, Hold offenders accountable by strengthening community-based supervision, sanctions and services.”  That language is directly taken from the Special Council’s final report.

Nothing in that challenge asked the Special Council to consider child abuse statutes, change state rape laws or address whether religious clergy should be required to report crimes that parishioners admit during confession.  However, all of that is found in the current HB 1176.

Georgia is not a criminal justice reform trendsetter.  Many states – some here in the southeast – have enacted or considered changes to reduce prison populations, address recidivism, improve community treatment programs, reduce state costs and ease the burden on crowded courts.

There might be many good reasons to consider child abuse statutes, change state rape laws or address whether religious clergy should be required to report crimes that parishioners admit during confession.  But using HB 1176 as the vehicle for those goals is mission creep.  Those ideas – which might be very good ideas – need to be considered on their own merits.

The principles behind criminal justice reform include incarcerating those people who can do us harm, treating those people who need help more than they need incarceration, keeping the public safe and reinvesting prison system dollars into treatment programs.  This is quite a leap from do the crime, do the time principles that caused prison overcrowding here and nationally.

Criminal justice reform asks us to make a fairly significant philosophical leap:  Will we continue to treat the people who can do us harm the same as those who merely need our help, or, will we create new approaches that incarcerate the people who have done the most harm, and likely would do so again, but create new paths for those who most often do harm only to themselves?

Some of these numbers are frightening.  Georgia’s state prison population – men and women – has grown from fewer than 30,000 two decades ago to 44,000 in the year 2000 to 56,000 today with projections of 60,000 within four years if we make no fundamental systemic changes.  We add about 1,000 new people to the prison population each year, above and beyond those who are released.

The number of Georgians on parole –22,000 – is up 9 percent and the number of Georgians on probation –156,000 – is up 22 percent since the year 2000.  One-in-13 Georgia adults is behind bars, on parole or on probation – the highest percentage in the nation.  The annual cost to fund our penitentiaries has swollen from $500 million per year two decades ago to almost $1.1 billion.

Our state prisons operate at 107 percent capacity.  At any moment several hundred more inmates are held in local jails because there is no room for them in the state penal system.  Sure, we can build more prisons, but it costs $80 million to build a prison.  It costs millions more dollars every year to feed and clothe inmates and pay for their health care, millions more to hire staff to run those prisons.

And what do we get for all this spending?  We get a 30 percent failure rate – measured as the percentage of released inmates who are back behind bars within three years.  We spend $1.1 billion per year to sustain a 30 percent failure rate.  A private sector business would not last very long if its products routinely posted a 30 percent failure rate.

Thursday morning the House and Senate special committee that sits down to discuss criminal justice reform should begin by deciding how to trim out the mission creep add-ons that do not directly address the urgent need we have to adopt meaningful criminal justice reform in Georgia.

Criminal justice reform is arguably the most serious work of the 2012 General Assembly.  It needs to remain on-point and focused.  Other good ideas should be handled on their own merits as separate legislation.

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