Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Athens Jail & Diversion

As the old joke goes, if you want to make sure a problem never gets solved, appoint a task force or commission to "study" it.

Fortunately for citizens of Athens-Clarke County, the Mayor's Criminal Justice Task Force report issued last week seems better than the average commission pablum, weighing in with some serious and thoughtful solutions to jail overcrowding in the county, which has been a problem for years.

A new Clarke County Jail is the big ticket, but it's just one of dozens of steps an Athens-Clarke task force says are needed to fix the county's wasteful and cumbersome justice system.

A report by a criminal justice task force Mayor Heidi Davison appointed in January, made public Monday, is the latest of several reinforcing the need for a new jail, but is the one that will finally get the ball rolling.

Most of the task force's 40 recommendations, though, are aimed at reducing recidivism and keeping nonviolent criminals out of jail whenever possible.

Carter Goble [consulting firm] found that two-thirds of Clarke County inmates are awaiting trial and cannot make bail, and many wait more than six months for a bond hearing. The average inmate has been booked into jail 11 times.

Sidebar: I wonder how many of them are hapless waiters, bartenders and doormen "busted" for selling liquor to underage drinkers?

Included in the many recommendations aimed at reducing recidivism is "building a 50-bed diversion center that will house some inmates less expensively than a jail and include probation, counseling, work-release and other rehabilitation programs."

This would go against the grain in corrections today. As I noted back in June, states are defunding diversion centers because of budgetary crises, leaving the classic sacred cow of jail/prison bed space untouched. Politically, it's virtually impossible to suggest releasing non-violent inmates from incarceration, but shutting down diversion centers only increases the numbers of inmates flowing into the system, thus aggravating the problem even more.

While a new jail facility here in Athens is necessary and at the top of the list (and financially, will probably render moot most of the other recommendations), it's good to know the county and its leaders have a well-written, progressive document in their hands to refer to when perhaps monies are available and we're ready to reduce crime and imprisonment holistically.

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