Criminal Justice Reform Has Bipartisan Support

Larry Peterson reports in the Savannah Morning News:

Gov. Nathan Deal says he's moving ahead to reduce Georgia's prison population by diverting non-violent drug offenders to other programs.

Deal touted the idea – already being implemented in some parts of Georgia, including Chatham County – in his Jan. 10 inaugural speech.

"One out of every 13 Georgia residents is under some form of correctional control," he said. "It costs about $3 million per day to operate our Department of Corrections."

A 2009 national report said drug-related crimes were listed as the primary offense for about 17 percent of Georgia's prisoners.

Deal has made it clear he's not interested in springing repeat or violent offenders.

But locking up non-violent offenders wastes their lives, strains the state's budget and depletes its work force, he said.

Deal elaborated on his proposal, which involves a system of alternative programs courts, in an interview last week.

The programs involve drug courts, DUI courts, mental health courts, day reporting centers and expanded probation and treatment options.

All three kinds of courts, and more, exist in Chatham County.

"That's the kind of initiative we will undertake," Deal said.

"It does require some start-up money in the judicial budget to create more … courts."

His effort coincides with the state's struggle against a recession-driven budget shortfall estimated at $1.5 billion.

But Deal said the start-up money would be "more than compensated for in the reduction in our prison population."

The governor acknowledged no funds are set aside in the budget he has proposed for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

"But we do believe that maybe there is some flexibility (in that budget) to further the process," he said.

He said he plans to include funding in the budget for the following year, but he did not specify an amount.

Deal is more than aware some areas already have alternative sentencing programs. One of them is in Hall County and is run by his son, Superior Court Judge Jason Deal.

"We want to encourage more … (to) do that," he said.

State Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, noted Deal's proposal has earned widespread bipartisan support.

"It's a sort of convergence of liberal and conservative ideas," he said. "This idea is fiscally sound as well as socially responsible.

"We need to distinguish between the people we are afraid of and those we're just mad at. We can't afford to lock up everyone."

Sen. Lester Jackson, D-Savannah, also praised the idea.

Jackson said he and other members of the Georgia Black Legislative Caucus discussed the idea with Deal last week.

He said such programs have worked well where they have tried and have been financially "self-sustaining."

"We believe it can be a model that can be used across the state," he said. "It saves money and puts people who need treatment in a treatment arena."

Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Savannah, agreed.

Stephens called the current rate of incarceration – a by-product of 1990s "two strikes and you're out" laws – a "drain on the taxpayers."

"I think he's moving in the right direction," he said. "I applaud him for being willing to embrace outside-the-box thinking."

GOP House Speaker David Ralston and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, also a Republican and a leader in the Senate, support the concept.

Chatham County has five alternative tribunals for non-violent offenders and a sixth is due to start soon.

The oldest is the Savannah-Chatham County Drug Court.

Started in 2001 by Chatham County Superior Court Judge James F. Bass Jr., the court had graduated 153 people as of December.

Participants must attend activities five days a week, get jobs and face frequent drug screenings.

They also must pay fines, earn a GED and regularly attend Alcoholics or Narcotics Anonymous sessions.

Many graduates otherwise would have been headed to prison or a probation detention center, said Brooke Rogers Brooks, drug court coordinator.

"Basically we get participants to do all the things that responsible citizens are supposed to do," Brooks said.

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