Conservative states across the South have altered their approach to criminal sentencing in recent years by replacing the tough-on-crime mantra with a “smart on crime” philosophy that supporters say saves money and could even cut repeat offenses.Not to mention the obvious connection: when you spend more on education, you need less for criminal justice.
Georgia may be next.
The General Assembly this winter will debate a shift in emphasis toward alternatives to prison time for nonviolent offenders, as suggested by a special council appointed last year to study the state’s prison population and criminal code. The effect of its recommendations would be to send fewer people to jail for property and drug crimes and boost alternative punishments.
That shift has the firm backing of Gov. Nathan Deal, who said Georgia, which now spends more than $1 billion a year on state prisons and has seen its inmate population double in the past 20 years, simply cannot afford to keep the current sentencing regime.
“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,” Deal said in an interview.
“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.”
It costs Georgia $51 a day to keep drug offenders and other nonviolent criminals locked up.
The Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform -- comprised of judges, lawmakers and other officials -- said Georgia’s prison population will increase by 8 percent to almost 60,000 inmates by 2016 if current policies remain in place. That jump will require taxpayers to spend an additional $264 million for more prison beds over the next five years.
Deal said he will ask the General Assembly to spend $10 million for new accountability courts. “We believe there will be a benefit and financial savings that will come from these courts, diverting people out of the prison system,” the governor said.
Changes to the criminal code proved to be more controversial among those on the special council, especially when it came to drug offenses. But the group reached consensus on some changes, including:
- Increasing the threshold that makes a theft a felony to $1,500 -- up from the current $500 which was established in 1982 -- and increasing the felony threshold of theft by shoplifting from $300 to $750.
- Adjusting sentencing ranges for burglaries, with more serious punishment reserved for break-ins of homes and less severe sentences for burglaries of unoccupied structures, such as tool sheds, barns and other buildings.
- Giving judges a “safety value” that would allow them, after making certain findings, to depart from mandatory sentences in the current law for drug trafficking.
Sounds like everyone's on board, right? Not quite.
Douglas County District Attorney David McDade, one of Deal’s appointees on the commission, was the most vociferous opponent of easing up on drug offenders.
To give only probation for having small quantities of illegal drugs in effect “decriminalizes drug possession,” he said.
“I think the legislative leadership will look at this report and see a number of common sense proposals that will receive broad support,” McDade said. “But there are a number of proposals that are not what Georgians support, because they put at risk public safety.”
How probation for misdemeanor amounts of illegal drugs "puts at risk public safety" is a mystery to most people today, but it is in keeping with the old 90's philosophy of "just say no" and other worn out drug cliches which have proved costly and ignominious failures.
I'll also mention this: the growing use of probation and other techno-correction alternatives (such as GPS technology for offenders) is not necessarily good news and may end up widening the net of the correctional-industrial complex.
But as I mentioned last winter, while Deal didn't say much about criminal justice and sentencing reform in his 2010 campaign, he has brought it up continuously since being sworn in. And though I think a lot of the reform talk, both in Georgia and elsewhere, is being driven by the economic downturn of the past three years, the rhetoric is slowly shifting towards more humane realities.
Rather than being viewed as a budgetary capitulation, the theme of "restoring sanity" to our sentencing and incarceration policies is striking a chord (the "smart on crime" v. "tough on crime" mentioned above). Deal seems rather confident that he might have the votes to pull off some reforms this coming session.
Deal said changes enacted in other states will give Georgia models to consider. And so far, he said, he is hearing positive responses from lawmakers of all stripes.
“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,” Deal said, “I think they’re certainly willing to embrace these changes.”
UPDATE: Deal released his budget today and, as predicted, it's good news/bad news when it comes to punishment. While calling for the $10 million mentioned above for accountability/alternative sentencing courts, he has also asked for $35 million for new prison construction.
The legislature has the final say in tweaking the numbers, but it seems perplexing to call for funding for decarceration while at the same time adding new monies for new incarceration.