Thursday, January 3, 2013

Georgia Out In Front Of Prison Reform?

Mandatory-Minimums Might Be Scrapped in 2013 Legislative Session:

As reported in this local article, headlined "Mandatory minimum sentences face scrutiny: Some prefer to give judges more leeway in some cases," there is now serious talk of serious reform in Georgia of mandatory minimum sentencing provisions. The article starts this way:

Mandatory minimum sentences may get a hard look from state legislators in the upcoming session, and at least some Hall County leaders think that’s a good idea.  “I’m not a legal scholar or professional in the legal world,” state Rep.-elect Lee Hawkins said.  “But just looking at it from a common sense side, I question the need for mandatory minimum sentencing when we have more than capable judges who can listen to a case and make a decision based on the facts.”

The sentencing guidelines established by state law have come under increasing scrutiny as an expensive prison population continues to affect Georgia’s budget.

A criminal justice council created by Gov. Nathan Deal recommended in a 2011 report that judges be given more discretion in some cases.  The council recommended in its most recent 2012 report that the legislature consider implementing a “mandatory minimum safety valve,” which would allow judges more discretion in cases of nonviolent crimes, particularly those drug-related, or those in which criminals have cooperated with police.

For judges, the issue can be a matter of compassion. Former Superior Court Judge John Girardeau said in his experience, problems with mandatory minimums were infrequent but raised concerns.  “It doesn’t happen frequently, but there’s been enough instances where I’ve had to impose a sentence required by law that I thought under the circumstances was an unjust sentence, and that was troubling,” he said.

Hall County District Attorney Lee Darragh, though, said minimum sentencing is beneficial for prosecutors and victims.  “Mandatory minimum sentences are an invaluable tool to prosecutors in this state in ensuring justice for victims of the most serious crimes on the books,” Darragh said. 
Of course, what the prosecutor is saying is half-true. It's a "invaluable tool" alright, but only in terms of railroading defendants into a compromised position during plea bargaining. This would include, for example, pleading guilty to crimes they did not commit simply because the "threat" of the mandatory-minimum sentence makes a lesser sentence more appealing.

In a related article, it seems local sheriffs (jailers) in Georgia are now pushing back against some of the state's incarceration reforms pushed through last year, claiming the state is merely passing the buck (literally) to them.
When Georgia legislators passed a law intended to keep more nonviolent criminals out of prison, they promised millions in savings and called it a financial windfall for the state.
County sheriffs call it passing the buck.

“The bill was intended to save state dollars on the (state prisons) budget when essentially it pushed a lot of these costs, we fear, to local taxpayers,” said Terry Norris, executive director of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association.

The reform law, which went into effect in July, means that some crimes that were once considered felonies and got offenders stints in state prison may now be misdemeanors, meaning an offender will serve out his time in a county jail. And that means county taxpayers will solely bear the costs.
Mainly what we're talking about is the change in definition (and amount) of misdemeanor versus felony theft.  Felony theft had previously been valuables of $500 or more (steal something worth more than $500 and it's a felony, punishable in state prison; less than that, a misdemeanor). The new law raised the felony theft value of the item to $1500, meaning anything less than that is misdemeanor theft and more likely to be punished at the local level in jail.

Thus the bitching.
“Fifteen hundred dollars, that’s a lot of money— forgery amounts went way up, too,” said Maj. Karen Johnson, administrator of the Cherokee County jail. “That will definitely keep the county jails fuller… when I am already overcrowded.”

“I find it truly incredible and absolutely amazing that such drastic changes could happen so quickly, especially since the vast majority of the citizens of this state have no knowledge of the consequences that will follow these changes in our laws,” Sills wrote in an open letter just before the state senate approved the reforms. “Every thief, burglar, check forger, and hoodlum from Trenton to Tybee, from Bainbridge to Blue Ridge, will be grinning from ear to ear.”
That's silly, naturally, as has been shown time and time again with such sentencing schemes like Three Strikes and Mandatory Minimums. Most property criminals have no idea what the sentences are, much less care.

However, the sheriff's, et al, do have a point. As states, particularly southern states, have circled the drain financially the past five years, most are now taking steps to do anything to pass the buck to either the local level or the federal level. And if that means filling the jails instead of the prisons, well, good luck to you county folks down there.

Plus, as the article notes, Georgia is not alone, completely anyway.
Already neighboring states had increased the financial threshold for felony theft, Golick said. That is true in North Carolina and South Carolina, which increased the threshold to $1,000 and $2,000 respectively but not true in Alabama or Tennessee, where the felony threshold remains at $500, or in Florida where the threshold is $300.

So, what are we seeing here? Given the states in question are largely Republican-oriented states, and Republicans have been the law and order party for 40+ years now, one needs to move beyond simple crime and punishment ideology and focus, as always, on the money.

For the real impetus here isn't some sense of "caring" for criminals, or sanity in sentencing, or wanting to change the system for the better. No, what's driving this embrace of reform is simple economics: southern states in particular are going broke from the hearty embrace of the imprisonment binge of the 80's and 90's. Once the "Great Recession" began almost five years ago, it became apparent that the old way of doing things (i.e. spending more money on corrections than you do on education) was unsustainable.

Now that education has been subjected to death by a thousand budget cuts, the only real place left to save money (other than raising revenues, god forbid) is to reform criminal justice.

And while I wish the reforms were being driven by more humanitarian, sane or logical reasoning, I'll take the dollars and cents "we ain't got no money" excuse any day of the week.

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