By Mike Klein
Georgia’s criminal justice reform initiative has flown stealth-like under the radar since November when a special council delivered its report. That will change soon, perhaps later this week, with the introduction of legislation that will propose the greatest change since get tough policies enacted in the 1980’s and 90’s caused the Georgia prison population to swell beyond its walls.
What you should expect from legislation – we are hearing it could be almost 100 pages long – was the focus of an American Legislative Exchange Council criminal justice reform panel held last week in Atlanta. “Eighty million dollars to build one prison in Georgia – that is the cost of bricks and mortar, not the cost of staffing,” said Georgia Court of Appeals Judge Michael Boggs.
“This may have come about as the result of a fiscal crisis in this nation and in this state. Maybe that’s why we got where we got, because we recognize we don’t have the money,” said Boggs, who continues to serve on the state special council on criminal justice reform. “But at the end of the day, these are laudable goals.”
The goals to which Boggs referred are primarily these: Slow down exponential growth in the state prison population, treat rather than incarcerate people who have addiction issues but not other criminal issues, do both in such a way that public safety is not threatened, reinvest dollars that are currently going into prisons into treatment programs, and then continually re-evaluate it.
(Click here to review the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform for Georgians report.)
Criminal justice system reform has become one of the better examples of national political bi-partisanship as states realize budgets can no longer accommodate ever expanding corrections costs. Georgia’s annual expense has swollen from $500 million per year to $1.1 billion in 20 years. Almost 20 states have enacted or are currently considering substantial reforms.
ALEC, the Pew Center on the States, the National Conference of State Legislatures and other public policy organizations including Right on Crime are all focused intently on criminal justice. Last week the Georgia Public Policy Foundation published a state-focused issues analysis that is available online.
Criminal justice reform has its own rock stars – Texas Republican state Rep. Jerry Madden and his Democratic counterpart Sen. John Whitmire. Starting five years ago they put conventional partisan politics aside to craft a new corrections model that enabled Texas to slow down prison population growth and reduce anticipated state outlays by hundreds of millions of dollars.
ALEC brought Madden to Atlanta – one of several visits he has made since last year to confer with state legislators, the judicial branch and others who are designing Georgia criminal justice reform.
“How many of you would rather spend money on things like schools and highways or tax reduction or something other than spending it on building prisons?” Madden said. “It is easier for a Red State to do this than a Blue State. It’s easier because nobody thinks Georgia is soft on crime. I don’t believe it and nationally nobody is going to believe it.” (Madden discussed criminal justice reform at the 2010 Georgia Public Policy Foundation legislative briefing conference.)
Georgia’s prison population – less than 30,000 twenty years ago – is anticipated to reach at least 60,000 within five years if nothing about the state criminal justice system changes. Prison system expense is the second fastest growing segment of the state budget behind Medicaid. “This is sucking up a lot of our money,” state Sen. Bill Cowsert told the ALEC gathering.
Two popular get-tough ideas are being challenged; A) Do the time, do the crime, and; B) Lock them up, throw away the key. That is because another idea – you can rehabilitate almost anyone by having them do time – has proven wrong. “They don’t learn their lesson,” Cowsert said. “It is not working to just lock them up and throw away the key for a certain length of time.”
Georgia has a 30 percent recidivism rate – almost one-third of released inmates return to prison within three years of their release date. Or to consider that from another angle, our $1.1 billion annual corrections investment has a 30 percent failure rate. Recidivism rates are lower – between 7 and 13 percent – when approved offenders participate in alternative options such as accountability courts that are most often used with personal drug use offenders who are not considered a threat.
“We all know you don’t throw water on a grease fire,” Rep Jay Neal told the ALEC audience. “Now we know you don’t throw the addict into prison and think you’re going to correct behavior.” Mandatory treatment combined with very strict – sometimes electronic — monitoring and drug testing are possible options with incarceration still on the table for noncompliant offenders.
Georgia currently has just 33 accountability courts; one reason is because public and private sector alternative treatment options are insufficient. “You can’t have a felony post-adjudication drug court without having treatment options,” said Judge Boggs. “In rural Georgia, that’s hard to come by.” The state also has just 13 day reporting centers capable of serving about 200 people each.
Governor Nathan Deal’s criminal justice reform cards are on the table in his proposed budget: $35.2 million for additional prison beds, $10 million for accountability courts expansion, $5.7 million to convert three pre-release centers to residential substance abuse treatment centers and $1.4 million to fund additional parole officers.
Much greater use of parole is another idea whose time might have come. Georgia has 22,000 on parole, dramatically lower than its 156,000 on probation population. Mandatory sentences that must be fully served are the reason for the disparity. But in the wake of do the crime, do the time sentencing inmates have been routinely released without post-prison support.
“We lock them up with criminals and when they get out five years later they’re still addicted, except now they have a felony on their record which makes it more difficult for them,” Neal said, “and they spent the last five years in graduate school learning how to be a true criminal, and they weren’t a criminal when we sent them there. Then we wonder why the recidivism rate continues to be a problem.”
Neal said slightly reducing some prison sentences and combining that with mandatory parole would be preferable to simply releasing inmates into the community “with no guidance, no direction, no accountability, no supervision, you’re just turned loose.”
The special council on criminal justice reform worked for six months. “Criminal justice reform is not a one-time fix in this session of the General Assembly,” Judge Boggs acknowledged. “It is an ongoing process.” In fact, Governor Deal announced the council will remain intact for further unspecified work ahead.
“It’s probably not going to be a package where everybody is going to say I like everything in here,” state Rep. Neal said. “We have to be careful that we don’t let individuals who don’t like one piece convince us that because of that one piece it’s not a good package.”
“The last thing we want to do is be light or easy on crime,” state Sen. Cowsert said. “We have to keep public safety as our top priority. We want to lower the crime rate in the process and we want to do this in a fiscally responsible manner.”
(Forum Editor Mike Klein will moderate a criminal justice reform conversation on Saturday, February 25 at the Georgia Bar Media and Judiciary Conference in Atlanta. Panelists include state Supreme Court Chief Justice Carol Hunstein, state Rep. Wendell Willard and Douglas County District Attorney David McDade.)