Rome Editorial: Prison and Mental Health Reforms Desperately Needed

Good op-ed in Sunday's Rome News-Tribune:

Flying over prison walls
From the Rome News-Tribune, Jan. 30, 2011 —

EASIER SAID than done is a saying that state leaders need to start becoming familiar with very quickly indeed.

Nonetheless, it shows considerable bravery on the part of Georgia’s new governor, Nathan Deal, to allow almost the first words out of his mouth (in his inaugural address) to be: prison reform.

And he’s far from alone in assigning this topic some overdue priority for attention. Indeed, there is a loud and clear message being sent to a traditionally “hang ’em high” electorate that in times such as these the state can no longer afford a rope.

That hardly means Georgia plans to open its prison doors. It does mean state leaders are going to try to convince legislators and the public that the pursuit of moral and economic salvation is a sounder policy for what are known as the “non-violent offenders” who make up roughly 40 percent of the state’s incarcerated population.

Simply follow the trail of recent public statements.

Deal: “Presently, one out of every 13 Georgia residents is under some form of correctional control. It cost about $3 million per day to operate our Department of Corrections. And yet, every day criminals continue to inflict violence on our citizens and an alarming number of perpetrators are juveniles. …

“For violent and repeat offenders, we will make you pay for your crimes. For other offenders who want to change their lives, we will provide the opportunity to do so with day reporting centers, drug, DUI and mental-health courts and expanded probation and treatment options. As a state, we cannot afford to have so many of our citizens waste their lives because of addictions. It is draining our state treasury and depleting our workforce.”

House Speaker David Ralston: “I don’t think we ought to let public safety depend on getting a bargain-basement price, but I think we do have to be conscious of the cost of incarceration. I think the dialogue has already started. … From time to time we need to step back and ask ourselves ‘Is it working?’ ”

Corrections Commissioner Brian Owens: “It makes no intuitive sense that Georgia is the ninth-most populous state with about 9.5 million citizens but has a prison population the same as New York state with 19.5 million citizens. It’s not because we’re committing more crime in Georgia.’’

FEW GEORGIANS appear aware of the price exacted by the past one-upmanship of the political parties in the race to “lock ’em up and throw away the key” over the past two decades. Zell Miller and Democrats first tapped into this wellspring of voter approval with “two strikes you’re out” and the “seven deadly sins” sentencing laws. Republicans heaped on more while simultaneously, when attaining power, stripping most prisons of rehabilitative efforts — and even redemptive counseling. Recidivism (committing a crime again after release) is now up to 29 percent.

In brief, it presently costs state taxpayers $49.35 a day to keep someone behind bars and they’re being kept there longer as well. Georgia currently has roughly 53,000 in its cells, its capacity, with new prisons to hold another 2,650 under construction. The corrections budget is well past $1 billion a year and climbing — 500 percent more than it was in 1985.

There’s no question but this approach of “tough hate” toward any and all lawbreakers has become unaffordable and, in times of dire budget problems, forcing some major second thoughts. There’s really nothing else left to try, although it is worth noting that no leading state political figure has yet dared mention, even though prisons hold many drug users, the decriminalization of narcotics possession in small amounts.

THAT’S NOT the same as “legalization,” as too many seem to believe. It means treating those addicted and “in possession” as victims. Trafficking is another matter entirely, as are criminal acts if intended to support “the habit.” Drinkers and gamblers are often “addicted” as well but our society doesn’t put them in prison for picking up a drink or rolling dice.

Or, as Owens observed regarding the current trend: “I think they’re trying to get to the fact that if we hold offenders accountable on the street, we provide them with addiction services, provide mental-health treatment; we drug test them every other day, make them pay restitution to the victim, that’s what the public really wants.”

There’s no question as to what the coming change involves if citizens and re-election nervous politicians can be convinced. As Deal spelled it out: day reporting centers, courts specializing in drug and DUI and mental-health cases, expanded probation and treatment options.

The governor appears to have considerable familiarity with this issue — as well as regarding the need to give judges a freer hand in sentencing options. He seems to have been instructed at the knee of his son, Hall County Superior Court Judge Jason Deal, who runs one of Georgia’s 28 drug courts. Floyd County, by the way, still doesn’t have such a court despite Chief Judge Walter Matthews, and this newspaper, having advocated starting one for many years.

THE ONLY RISK in shifting to such approaches is in believing they contain some instantaneous budgetary gratification. They don’t. This is very much like the current mental-health system overhaul (another item already costing taxpayers more than $1 billion a year). It will cost more at the outset and less only somewhere down the line. The only alternative is sticking with the current status quo that has been proven to cost more and more and more with each passing year.

However, it is important for the state to recognize that, just as with the planned closing of Northwest Georgia Regional Hospital in Rome, the alternatives need to be in place, competently staffed and all the bugs worked out before and not after the doors are opened.

Both prison- and mental-health reforms have long been desperately needed. They arrive now mostly because the politicians have run out of options as well as money.

However, they must be pursued not so much quickly, not so much cheaply but — always the most important of all in any taxpayer expenditure — efficiently, correctly and successfully.

Read more: – Flying over prison walls  

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