Ten Years Later Georgia Still Seeking Drug Abuse Options

By Mike Klein

Mike Klein, Georgia Public Policy Foundation Forum Editor

There are many different kinds of snakes and though I like none of them, I am willing to concede that some can attack and kill you while others are mostly just a nuisance.  The part that I am not quite so good at is figuring out which snakes to fear and which snakes to just closely monitor.

A lot of folks in Georgia are trying to figure out which drug abusers to fear and which to just closely monitor.  It is an inexact science that no doubt will produce examples of success and failure.

Reform ideas include a strategically different approach that emphasizes less costly treatment programs over more costly incarceration for drug abusers who otherwise have clean records and who are not considered a public safety threat.  The strategy would treat some drug abuse as an illness rather than as a crime.

This model has been adopted or is under consideration in many states like Georgia that also can no longer afford to build and maintain new prisons.  Adult inmates with drug abuse or mental illness histories – and often both – have overburdened state corrections.

The challenge is neither easy nor new.  A December 2002 sentencing commission report submitted to outgoing Gov. Roy Barnes stated, “Use of Georgia’s prisons must be more heavily concentrated on the criminals who pose the greatest danger to our communities, and credible alternatives must be created for drug offenders and others who do not need a hard time in prison.”

In language not much different from what we hear today, the commission described the need “to break the seemingly endless cycle of crime and addiction for thousands of offenders, ease the strain on Georgia’s courts, jails and prisons and make our communities safer.”  It further said, “After more than 15 years fighting the current war on drugs, judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys are frustrated and ready for a change.”

The purpose of the commission was to better standardize how judges sentence offenders.  Ten years ago the state was worried it might exceed 50,000 prison inmates.  Today it has about 56,000 inmates with forecasts the state prison population could reach 60,000 within four years. The prison population increases by about 1,000 inmates per year.

There is widespread agreement that illegal drugs — and increasingly, the abuse of legal prescription drugs — are linked to virtually all Georgia crime.  That was one finding last year by the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform.  It is reflected in the 75-page bill now before the General Assembly, and it was a recurring theme during eight hours of committee hearings.  But there are very different views about drug treatment vs. incarceration.

That was evident during an exchange between state Rep. Jay Neal and Cobb County District Attorney Pat Head.  Neal is a member of the House – Senate committee that is drafting criminal justice reform legislation.  Neal strongly supports alternative treatment options and he has been very outspoken, often recalling his experiences as a pastor helping congregants.

“If it’s somebody that’s not a threat to society and the crime is addiction driven crime, we need to be doing everything we can to not put them in prison so they can get a graduate degree in crime so they come out and be a threat to society,” Neal said.

Cobb district attorney Head replied, “I’ve got to respectfully disagree.  Many of the murders we have are committed by people who are drug addicts.  The aggravated assaults, the burglaries in the home, those are people that I am afraid of.  If we keep letting people who are addicted to drugs not have to face any serious consequences for that addiction they will, in my humble opinion, they will ultimately hurt somebody.”

“That’s where the risk / needs assessment comes in because we can begin to see when they start trending toward true criminal behavior to be afraid of.  We can typically see that,” Neal said.  Head replied, “I haven’t seen the assessment that will give me that information yet.”

Many drug treatment vs. incarceration principles were developed in Texas where Marc Levin of the Texas Public Policy Foundation says risk / needs assessment tools have become increasingly accurate for sorting out low, medium and high risk offenders.

“Of course, just as in driving a car or flying a plane, a zero-based risky society is not realistic,” said Levin, who is a former Texas Supreme Court staff attorney, “but corrections personnel have a far better ability now to match the right offender with the right program or intervention than just a few decades ago.”

Georgia legislators have a very short calendar to decide how much criminal justice reform they are comfortable with this year.  There are three or maybe four weeks left in the current session.  The bill is big; it contains a lot more than deciding how to balance drug incarceration or treatment options.  But ultimately, that is the biggest piece and it is the one that must be decided first.

(Click here to read a Bloomberg BusinessWeek article about Georgia justice reform.)

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