Georgia Considers Policy Change For Non-Violent Offenders

ATLANTA — Georgia could soon be following in the footsteps of other states in regards to prison realignment plans. The shift from “tough on crime” to “smart on crime” is becoming widely popular in states to save money and possibly reduce recidivism.

Georgia is currently investigating a plan that would result in sending fewer people to jail for property and drug crimes and boost alternative punishments.

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal supports the shift of providing alternatives to prison time for non-violent offenders and sees it as a more effective approach to punishment.

“We’re at a point in time where the necessity for doing something has gotten so big that to turn our head and pretend the problem does not exist is not responsible government,” said Deal.

Georgia now spends more than $1 billion a year on state prisons and its inmate population has doubled in the past 20 years — making it difficult to maintain the cost of housing inmates. It costs $51 a day to keep drug offenders and other nonviolent criminals locked up.

“If we don’t make some changes, we’ll see an ever-increasing percentage of our state budget having to be allocated to our correction system. That takes away funding for things like education and other areas where many think the money is better spent,” said Deal.

If current policies remain in Georgia, the Special Council on Criminal Reform believe the prison population will increase by 8 percent to almost 60,000 inmates by 2016. The increase will cost the taxpayers an additional $264 million to equip the prison with more beds over the next five years.

Most people entering a Georgia prison are not murderers, rapists or robbers — instead 60 percent of inmates are drug and property offenders, according to the council.

“It’s not productive to put a non-violent offender in prison when they might have a drug problem, not a criminal problem, or a mental health problem, not a criminal problem,” said Kelly McCutchen, president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.

Some options for improving costs and safety include expanding “accountability” courts. Deal said he would ask the General Assembly to spend $10 million for new accountability courts — these are drug, mental health and veterans’ courts that intend to treat an offender’s issues instead of choosing incarceration.

The council agreed upon several changes to the criminal code in Georgia, but still has more work to do. Members of the council reached a consensus including increasing the threshold that makes a theft a felony to $1,500 — up from the current $500 which was established in 1982. They also agreed to increase the felony threshold of theft by shoplifting from the current $300 to $750.

The council also is adjusting the sentencing ranges for burglaries — giving more serious punishments for break-ins of homes and less severe sentences for burglaries of unoccupied structures, like tool sheds, barns and other buildings.

The council also agreed to give judges a “safety value” that would allow them — after making certain findings to depart from mandatory sentences in the current law for drug trafficking. However, they did not reach a consensus on drug crimes — but noted that nearly 3,200 offenders were sent to prison each year for drug possession, two-thirds of them who were determined to have a low risk to offend again. An argument for probation was presented but no final decision has been agreed upon.

Some opposed the probation proposal with serious concerns, including Douglas County District Attorney David McDade.

To give only probation for having small quantities of illegal drugs in effect, “decriminalizes drug possession,” he said.

Although McDade criticizes the probation debate he does believe the council worked hard to deliver needed proposals for the state.

“I think the legislative leadership will look at this report and see a number of common sense proposals that will receive broad support,” said McDade. “But there are a number of proposals that are not what Georgians support, because they risk public safety.”

Even though the proposals don’t seem to be perfect—Georgia Court of Appeals Judge Michael Boggs of Waycross, also a member of the council, said the recommendations are a good start.

“We don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” said Boggs. “We have seen similar reform efforts enacted in some very conservative states, which have seen significant cost savings and maintained public safety.”

Other states have proven similar changes to work for them. Texas was among the first, and in 2007 when they needed to spend $540 million to build new prisons with an additional cost of $1.5 billion to run them—the state decided to spend a fraction of the estimated prison costs on alternative programs for non-violent offenders including treatment options. Since Texas made the “smart-on-crime” change they have seen both the crime rate and incarceration rate go down.

North and South Carolina have also both made changes to their correctional systems. South Carolina has estimated saving $175 million in prison construction costs and $66 million in operating costs over five years — and also improving public safety. North Carolina has reduced spending on corrections in order to increase public safety through programs set up to minimize or eliminate repeat offenses.

“As members of the General Assembly continue to see demands placed on them to appropriate more money for incarceration and see the numbers of inmates continue to rise substantially every year — I think they’re certainly willing to embrace these changes,” said Deal.