By Kenneth L. Shigley
My first job after law school was as a prosecutor in a rural judicial circuit. Soon after joining the district attorney’s office, I assisted in a death penalty trial for the rape and murder of a young girl. In such cases I looked into the heart of evil, prosecuting dangerous criminals from whom we needed to protect decent citizens.
In other cases, it also became apparent that perhaps 85 percent of those I was prosecuting would probably not have been in trouble but for alcohol, drugs and mental health issues, were not prone to violence and were generally more dangerous to themselves than anyone else. They deserved some punishment but did not need to become long-term tax burdens. That is pretty much what I hear from many judges and prosecutors today. Back then, of course, lacking the concept of drug and DUI accountability courts or coordination with addiction or mental health counseling resources, our only solutions were prosecution and incarceration.
Three decades later, upon my installation as State Bar president, Gov. Nathan Deal appointed me to the new Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform, along with experienced judges, a district attorney and several legislators. The council was formed to address the fact that Georgia has the fourth-highest incarceration rate in the country with one in 70 Georgia adults behind bars and one in 13 under some sort of correctional supervision. Georgia’s prison population has grown 35 percent over the past decade. If we do nothing, it is projected to grow 8 percent more the next five years, costing an additional $264 million. This is the cumulative result of two decades of policy decisions that have sent more people to prison and held them there longer.
Those who complete long mandatory sentences generally emerge with pocket change, a bus ticket and no marketable skills except those learned from other inmates. People caught in the vicious cycle of addiction and recidivism are unavailable for productive employment and responsible parenting of children they help bring into the world.
These goals were laid out for the Criminal Justice Reform Council: (1) address the growth of the state’s prison population, contain corrections costs and increase efficiencies and effectiveness for better offender management; (2) improve public safety by reinvesting a portion of the savings into strategies that reduce crime and recidivism; and (3) hold offenders accountable by strengthening community-based supervision. I am convinced that Governor Deal and other state leaders are absolutely sincere about salvaging wasted lives as well as reducing the budget.
The council worked through the summer and fall and in November released our findings and recommendations. Here’s part of what we found: Supervising the nearly half a million people under correctional control in Georgia costs more than $1 billion each year, while recidivism rates remain high. We are not achieving public safety returns that justify this taxpayer burden.
As a former prosecutor, I have seen the evil that drives the most violent criminals, who need to be locked up for a long time to protect law-abiding citizens. The money that puts them behind bars is well spent. However, two-thirds of Georgia inmates are non-violent offenders, and the percentage of sentences served has more than doubled over the past 20 years. Converting them from tax burdens in prison to taxpayers in community-based corrections would help both public safety and public budgets.
By enabling Georgia’s community corrections agencies to supervise offenders effectively, we all win, with less crime, fewer victims and reduced costs of punishment. Toward this end, the council recommended expanding drug and accountability courts, expanding treatment options for offenders with substance abuse and mental health issues and implementing programs effective at reducing recidivism and encouraging offenders to comply with the conditions of their supervision.
These challenges are pressing but not unique. Several other conservative Southern states are using innovations similar to those we have recommended and are demonstrating that it is possible to be both tough on crime and smart on crime.
The General Assembly is now working on proposals to begin implementing the council’s recommendations. There are many moving parts. It will not be easy and it will not be done all in one year. While there are differences of opinion, there is a conscientious effort by legislative leaders to get it right, enacting reforms that will improve public safety, hold offenders accountable, control corrections costs and turn tax burdens into taxpayers. We can afford no less.
(Kenneth L. Shigley is President of the State Bar of Georgia)