Excerpts: Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform Report

Mike Klein, GPPF Forum Editor

The following excerpts contain all the substantial recommendations contained within the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform report that was released today by Governor Nathan Deal’s office. There was no news conference at the time this article was posted.  The online complete Special Council report contains extensive sourcing footnotes that were eliminated here to ease reading.  Edited for length.

Policies to Protect Public Safety, Hold Offenders Accountable and Contain Corrections Costs

Georgia policymakers are looking for ways to increase public safety and to control corrections spending and growth in the prison population. Per its legislative mandate, the Council undertook an extensive review of the state’s data and practices to analyze whether Georgia’s laws, policies and practices were focused on reducing recidivism and improving public safety.

This report provides analysis and options for policymakers to consider to increase public safety and avert the growth currently projected for the state’s prison population. It provides descriptions of each of the options. The Council strongly recommends that where potential savings are achieved, a portion be reinvested into those options that have been proven to reduce recidivism and improve public safety. These include expanding the availability of drug and other accountability courts and strengthening community supervision. The Council also suggests investing in effective information and performance measurement systems.

The following policy options are presented in three sections:

** The first section consists of recommendations to improve public safety and hold offenders accountable by improving the criminal justice system in Georgia, particularly focusing on strengthening community supervision, sanctions and services.

** The second section outlines potential sentencing reform options that will focus expensive prison beds on violent, career criminals and identify lower-level, non-violent offenders who could be effectively supervised in the community.

**The final section summarizes the priority reinvestment opportunities that the Council believes should be adopted by the legislature in order to improve public safety in Georgia.

Part I: Improving Public Safety and Holding Offenders Accountable

The Council’s analysis indicated that Georgia has established several good community-based sentencing options, but that they are insufficient in scale and scope to meet current needs. These options often do not exist in many parts of the state and too many of the options have waiting lists.

In addition, the Council noted that the number of people on probation or parole in Georgia has risen consistently. Since 2000, Georgia’s felony probation population has grown by 22 percent and the state’s parole population has grown 9 percent.  As of 2010, there were more than 156,000 felony probationers and 22,000 parolees being supervised in Georgia communities. In both 2009 and 2010, more offenders entered probation supervision than were discharged.

Finally, probation sentences are twice as long as the national average.45 The result of these facts and trends is that supervision agencies are overburdened in their efforts to provide effective supervision.

Based on this analysis, the Council developed a number of recommendations to improve public safety and hold offenders accountable. The recommendations focus on four areas: (1) Ensuring access to effective community-based sanctions, (2) Strengthening community supervision, (3) Ensuring resources are used effectively, and (4) Improving government performance to achieve long-term success.

Ensure Access to Effective Community-Based Sanctions

Recommendation 1: Create a statewide system of accountability courts. The Council recommends expanding the number of accountability courts and implementing a comprehensive standards and evaluation system to ensure all accountability courts are effective at improving public safety. Georgia has a number of accountability courts currently operating, including drug courts, mental health courts, veterans’ courts, and others, but some areas of the state do not have any accountability courts. Drug courts, for example, have been proven effective when they follow specific best practices both here in Georgia and across the country. By creating a statewide system of accountability courts that establishes best practices, collects information on performance measures, increases funding and conditions funding on adherence to best practices, Georgia can ensure that its accountability courts are making the most of their potential to increase public safety and controlling costs.

Specifically, the Council recommends that:

1. the Administrative Office of the Courts develop an electronic information system for performance measurement and require the submission of performance data.

2. the Judicial Council Standing Committee on Accountability Courts define and publish standards and mandatory practices to be promulgated by the Judicial Council within 6 months.

3. the Administrative Office of the Courts condition the award of state funds on compliance with standards and best practices.

4. the Administrative Office of the Courts create a certification and review process to ensure programs are adhering to standards and mandatory practices to include onsite auditing and the provision of technical assistance with evidence-based practices.

5. the state expand funding for accountability courts. The Council considered several options, including (1) redirecting savings from other reforms in this report, (2) dedicating a percentage of the County Drug Abuse Treatment and Education (DATE) Fund to drug courts and expanding the number of offenses that could be considered for a DATE fine, and (3) implementing a minimum fine for any drug offense that would be dedicated to accountability courts.

Recommendation 2: Expand access to effective treatment and programming options in communities around the state. Georgia struggles with a lack of community intervention resources, notably for substance abuse and mental health services. This means that judges have limited non-prison sentencing options to choose from. Programs that do exist like residential substance abuse treatment programs (RSATs) and day reporting centers (DRCs) have significant wait lists and are not available in all parts of the state. The Council recommends expanding these resources immediately and using a portion of the savings identified in this report to support them, with particular attention to residential treatment beds and day reporting centers.

Strengthen Community Supervision

Recommendation 3: Require the implementation of Evidence-Based Practices. Research and practice over the past 25 years have identified new strategies and policies that can make a significant dent in recidivism rates. Ensuring that evidence-based practices (EBP) are used and that state funds are spent on EBP will ensure the state is getting the best public safety return on its investment. This recommendation would require that offenders on probation and parole are supervised in accordance with practices proven to reduce recidivism, and that state funds for offender programming are spent on programs that are evidence-based.  By adopting a comprehensive, research-based approach to supervision, corrections systems can reduce recidivism by up to 30 percent.49 This significantly improves public safety and reduces costs.

Recommendation 4: Create Performance Incentive Funding Pilot Projects. Evidence-based community corrections agencies can cut recidivism, but adequate funding for them is a perennial challenge in the criminal justice system. States and localities can align their fiscal relationships in ways that reward performance. If corrections agencies are successful in cutting the rate at which offenders are sent back to prison for new crimes or rule violations, the state reaps savings by avoiding prison costs. By sharing some of those savings with the successful agencies and localities, states can help build stronger community corrections systems without appropriating new funds.

Recommendation 5: Implement mandatory supervision for all offenders who max-out their sentence. In 2010, 7,495 offenders released from prison had no parole supervision to follow. Of those offenders, 1,592 also had no probation supervision to follow meaning that they were released from prison with no supervision at all.50 These offenders include serious and even some chronic offenders, and by requiring that offenders serve time on parole, parole officers can provide supervision while these offenders transition back into the community. They also can serve as a valuable resource to crime victims, who are eager for information concerning the offenders in their cases. This recommendation requires that all inmates who would be released without any supervision be transferred to parole supervision six months before their discharge date.

Ensure Georgia’s Resources are Used Effectively

Recommendation 6: Improve Government Performance by Eliminating Dual Supervision. Currently some offenders are supervised by both probation and parole at the same time. However, it is unknown exactly how large this population is due to the difficulty of identifying these offenders through different information systems. Any overlap of time and resources to supervise offenders under both probation and parole is a significant waste of resources for the state. This recommendation would require GDC and the Board of Pardons and Paroles to identify a way to measure and track offenders who are dually supervised, whether as a result of the same or separate cases, and require that they develop rules governing how to eliminate such overlap.

Recommendation 7: Implement Earned Compliance Credits for Probation and Parole. With the average probation sentence in Georgia twice as long as the national average, offenders stack up and stretch probation thin. Earned compliance credits allow agencies to devote time and effort to offenders who present a greater threat to community safety and who are more likely to benefit from supervision and programs. It also promises to enhance motivation and promote behavior change by providing offenders with incentives to meet the goals and conditions of supervision.

The Council had significant discussions about ways to ensure that offenders are compliant and, in particular, the Council discussed the use of drug testing to ensure compliance. With current resources and staffing, probation is only able to conduct about 6,000 drug tests per month, resulting in many offenders being tested infrequently or not at all.53 Thus, the Council suggests that standards for drug testing be developed.

Recommendation 8: Expand the Performance Incentive Credit (PIC) program. Georgia can reserve prison space for higher-risk offenders and create incentives for offenders to participate in programming that will reduce the likelihood to reoffend upon release. This recommendation endorses changes that GDC and Board of Pardons and Paroles are making to the current PIC program. These changes, which include allowing offenders to earn up to 12 months of PIC time off their sentence for participation in work or risk reduction, should be codified in statute.

Recommendation 9: Improve the mechanism for ending probation for non-violent offenders on unsupervised or administrative supervision. Currently there are more than 50,000 probationers on unsupervised or administrative supervision. Georgia law allows supervision officers to bring probationers back to court to request that supervision be terminated. However, probation termination is frequently not sought or granted. Removing low-risk, non-violent probationers who have met all of their obligations, including restitution, from supervision caseloads allows officers to focus their time on moderate and high-risk offenders who need supervision.

Recommendation 10: Cap Sentences at Probation Detention Centers (PDCs). PDCs were meant to be 60 to 120 day programs. According to GDC, the average length of stay for those leaving a PDC in FY 2011 was 183 days, with the average length of stay at one PDC reaching 254 days.  In addition, there are currently about 800 offenders in local jails awaiting a PDC bed.  Capping stays at PDCs would reduce the jail backlog by allowing more offenders into PDC beds. In addition, providing information to judges on the current utilization levels of PDCs and any current PDC backlog will assist judges in making the best decisions.

This recommendation would require a 180-day cap on the sentence at Probation Detention Centers. The Council discussed not applying this cap, however, to offenders receiving a suspended PDC sentence in order to participate in a drug court program. In addition, the Council suggests that the Georgia Department of Corrections be required or incentivized to remove an offender from a local jail if beds are available.

Improve Government Performance and Ensure Long-Term Success

Recommendation 11: Create a Criminal Justice Reform Oversight Council. This recommendation would create an oversight council composed of legislative, executive, and judicial branch members, as well as representatives from the various sectors of the criminal justice system at the state and local level. The Oversight Council would be a continuing organization charged with monitoring and reporting back to the General Assembly on the implementation of the Special Council’s recommendations and the Special Committee’s legislation. The Oversight Council would also be asked to make additional recommendations to the General Assembly on future legislation and policy options.

Several issues were raised by Council members that could not be fully addressed for this report, but that the Council members felt deserved further examination. The Oversight Council could examine these issues further. These issues include, but are not limited to, the following:

Juvenile justice reform: Council members believe that a full examination of the state’s juvenile justice system should be undertaken to develop recommendations for reform.

Misdemeanor probation: Georgia’s unique approach to supervising misdemeanor offenders in the community should be fully examined, including the financing and monitoring of private probation, to determine whether it meets the public safety needs of the state and whether it adheres to evidence-based practices.

Battered person syndrome reforms: Some offenders currently incarcerated may not have been able to present evidence about abuse they endured. Council members believe that consideration of changes to the parole relief statute, ability to bring petitions to the Supreme Court, and ability to bring petitions to the Court of Appeals would allow for a fairer criminal justice system and could remove from the prison population people who do not present a threat to society.

Recommendation 12: Improve the electronic criminal justice information systems. Council members highlighted three areas of Georgia’s current exchange of criminal justice information for improvement: providing information to judges about sentencing and parole practices, requiring submissions of electronic sentencing information to Corrections and Parole, and creating electronic notification of parole notifications to judges and prosecutors.

Recommendation 13: Implement a performance auditing system. Internal audits by the Georgia Department of Corrections have shown significant strengths among the agency’s programs and facilities. However these audits also indicate a fidelity problem among some programs and facilities operated by the department. For example, not all offender files contained structured case plans, case plans were inconsistent and sometimes were not linked to assessments, and risk was not always a factor in selecting offenders.  This recommendation would require that GDC and Parole develop a system to regularly conduct external audits of all programs, practices and facilities, require that they report yearly on such audits to the Oversight Council and detail how they are using the audits to improve outcomes and meet the evidence-based practices requirement.

Recommendation 14: Implement a systematic performance measurement model. Most performance measures in Georgia track processes such as case flow (new cases received, cases discharged, cases remaining), activity counts (number of office or field contacts completed, number of drug tests administered), or point-in-time snapshots (average caseload size, types of cases supervised). Such measures provide information about the agency workload, but fail to address the results achieved by the agency.  This recommendation would require that GDC and Parole implement a systematic performance measurement model that includes measures of outcomes in key performance areas and report yearly to the Oversight Council …

Part II: Focus Expensive Prison Beds on Serious Offenders

Drug and property offenders represent almost 60 percent of all admissions to Georgia prisons.  In fact, five of the top six most common prison admission offenses are drug and property offenses. The average time spent in prison for offenders convicted of drug and property offenses tripled between 1990 and 2010.

Importantly, many of these offenders are identified as lower-risk to re-offend.  In 2010, Georgia courts sent more than 5,000 lower-risk drug and property offenders to prison who had never been incarcerated before, accounting for 25 percent of all admissions last year.

Looking more closely at admissions for drug crimes, nearly 3,200 offenders entered prison following a conviction for drug possession (as opposed to trafficking or sales) and, based on historical trends, are likely to spend a year and a half in prison before returning to the community. Yet two-thirds of these inmates were assessed as having a lower-risk to re-offend.

Research suggests that incarceration can lead to increased recidivism for certain offenders, and that this effect is stronger for felony drug offenders.  The Council considered a number of options to identify low-risk offenders who could be effectively supervised in the community at a lower cost, ensuring prison beds are available for more high-risk offenders.

Policy Options: Package 1

The Council developed the following options for consideration by the legislature. These options focus on identifying low-risk, nonviolent offenders who could be effectively supervised in the community at a lower cost, ensuring prison beds are available for more dangerous offenders.

The following policy options would reduce the projected growth in the prison population by up to 3,300 offenders over five years. However, even if these reforms are implemented, the prison population will still grow by approximately 600 offenders by the end of that time frame.

Package 1: Theft

The felony theft threshold in Georgia, last changed in 1982, is $500. Adjusting for inflation, this means that the felony standard has decreased by more than 50 percent ($500 in 1982 is equivalent to more than $1,100 today). In recent years, many other states have updated their felony thresholds. South Carolina raised its to $2,000; Texas to $1,500; and North Carolina to $1,000.  The Council suggests increasing the theft threshold for certain theft offenses from $500 to $1,500 and instituting sentence ranges that correspond to the value of the theft, including increasing the sentencing range for higher values. This increase would apply to the following statutes: Theft by taking, by deception, by conversion, by receiving stolen property, by receiving property stolen in another state, by bringing stolen property into state, theft of services, of lost or mislaid property, and copper theft.  In addition, the Council suggests increasing the threshold of theft by shoplifting from $300 to $750.

Package 1: Burglary

The Council recognizes that burglary is a serious offense. However, Georgia’s current burglary statute includes one sentencing range for all types of burglaries, spanning theft from an unoccupied tool shed to a nighttime invasion of an occupied home. Some states create different degrees of burglary based on the specific type of burglary committed and the details of the offense. The Council suggests creating two degrees of burglary by separating burglary of unoccupied structures from dwellings. Second degree burglary would include burglaries of unoccupied structures… First degree burglary would include burglaries of any dwelling, whether unoccupied or occupied. The Council also suggests adjusting the sentencing range to correspond to the degree of the offense, including raising the sentencing range for serious offenses that involve residential homes.

Package 1: Forgery

The current forgery statute groups all types of forgeries together without distinguishing between the type of document that is forged. Some states create separate degrees of forgeries based on the specific type of forgery committed and the details of the offense. The Council suggests creating degrees of forgery by separating forgery of checks from forgeries of other documents and also implementing a differentiation for forgeries of checks above or below $1,500. In addition, the Council suggests adjusting the deposit account fraud (“bad checks”) threshold from $500 to $1,500 for consistency. The Council also suggests adjusting the sentencing range to correspond to the degree of the offense, including raising the sentencing range for more serious forgeries.

Package 1: Mandatory Minimum Safety Valve

The Council suggests allowing judges to depart from mandatory minimum sentences for drug trafficking under the following specific circumstances:

• The interests of justice are served by a reduced minimum sentence;

• Public safety is likely to be improved with expedited access to risk-reduction programs;

• And the court specifies on the record the specific circumstances and reasons warranting this departure.

The Council recommends that a deviation floor be set whereby, if these criteria are met, the judge could reduce the minimum sentence by a certain percentage of the mandatory minimum, which would set a deviation floor ensuring some imprisonment for these offenders.

Package 1: Front-End Risk Assessment

The Council suggests authorizing AOC and GDC to establish a pilot program that would implement a risk assessment tool to identify prison-bound, non-violent drug and property offenders (without a prior violent or sex conviction, prior drug sale or trafficking conviction) who could be diverted from prison.

The Council discussed the challenges to implementing a risk assessment for prison-bound offenders and felt that through a pilot program the AOC and GDC could work out these issues before expanding statewide. The Council discussed two possible implementation options that AOC and GDC could consider:

Pre-Sentencing – Develop a tool that would identify those offenders most likely to be sentenced to prison. This group would be assessed by GDC before sentencing.

• Post-Sentencing – Develop a tool that would identify the lowest risk offenders for potential diversion (similar to Alabama) and require GDC to go back to the judge to request a different sentence for low-risk offenders.

Package 1: Minor traffic offenses

Currently, Georgia criminalizes minor traffic offenders while most other states treat them as violations with a fine as penalty. The numbers of traffic offenses that clog the court process are significant. The state has more than 2 million traffic offenses a year … The Council suggests changing minor traffic offenses from misdemeanors to violations, creating a new class of violations that are non-criminal for minor traffic offenses.  It is suggested that this include offenses below four point violations, and thus would not include offenses such as DUI, driving with a suspended driver’s license, or other serious traffic offenses.  The Council discussed options to enforce the fines imposed for such offenses, and recommend that the fines be tied to person’s driver’s license renewal and vehicle registration.

Package 1: Parole Guidelines

In 2008, the Parole Board implemented parole guidelines. The Council recommends requiring the Board of Pardons and Paroles to re-validate the guidelines every five years beginning in the year after enactment of these sentencing reforms so that the guidelines reflect current practice and standards.

Additional Policy Options
Georgia’s prisons hold several thousand people serving time for possession of controlled substances … The Council found two significant factors in the high number of possession offenders admitted to prison. First, the sentencing laws related to drug offenses are broad compared with other states. Second, some communities have limited if any options for offenders. In order to improve public safety and reduce costs the Council considered several sentencing options for drug offenses.

However no consensus was reached. The Council includes in this report two of the specific options considered and recommends that state policymakers consider these options or other options to address how the state deals with offenders whose criminal conduct is largely driven by drug addiction.

(This is the end of the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform report.)

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