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November 19, 2011

Special Georgia panel urges sentencing and court reforms to cut prison spending

This new piece in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, headlined "Panel recommends reforms to stem prison spending," reviews the work of a special group assembled in Georgia to recommend criminal justice reforms. Here are the basics:

Shortening sentences for some nonviolent offenses and creating a statewide network of accountability courts could help prevent Georgia taxpayers from spending more than $250 million to accommodate an expanding prison population, a state panel said Friday.

The Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform said changes are needed to control the unimpeded growth in state prison spending, which has doubled over the past two decades to $1.05 billion a year. The panel noted the growth is being fueled by drug and property offenders who account for about 60 percent of all prison admissions.

The council noted more than 3,200 offenders enter prison on a drug possession conviction each year and two-thirds of these inmates have been found to be low risks to offend again. For that reason, the panel recommended the creation of a statewide system of drug, mental health and veterans' courts that offer alternatives to incarceration and a more robust supervision of offenders released from custody to reduce recidivism. Some of the cost savings from the reforms can be used to help fund these programs, the report said....

The council -- comprised of judges, lawmakers and other officials -- also recommended changing some sentencing laws that have been on the books for decades, but have not been changed to adjust for inflation. For example, it is a felony to shoplift more than $300 in merchandise. The council recommended that threshold be increased to $750, meaning anyone caught shoplifting less than that amount would face a misdemeanor, not a felony, charge. For some theft crimes, the panel recommended increasing the felony threshold from $500 to $1,500.

If nothing is done, the report said, the state's prison population will increase by another 8 percent to nearly 60,000 inmates by 2016, requiring an additional $264 million to expand prison capacity.

Gov. Nathan Deal, who called for the creation of the council earlier this year, said the report's recommendations are "a starting point." He said he will sign an executive order that allows the council to continue studying the issue. "We have an amazing opportunity to save lives as well as tax dollars," Deal said in a statement. "While we’ll never shrink from our duty to protect the public from dangerous criminals, we know that alternative sentencing for nonviolent offenders suffering from addiction or mental illness produces much better results. Let’s get to work on promoting recovery and rehabilitation rather than a system that simply hardens criminals."

House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, said he will make the report's recommendations a priority in the upcoming legislative session....

Efforts to overhaul tough sentencing laws and provide alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders have picked up bipartisan support nationwide. This year, Arkansas, Kentucky and Ohio enacted comprehensive legislation that is projected to save taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars in new prison construction and operating expenses, said the Pew Center on the States, which assisted the Georgia reform council in its study.

Georgia has some of the toughest sentencing laws in the nation for violent offenders and sexual predators, and the panel did not recommend changing them. The panel did, however, said the Legislature should consider a "safety valve" for some judges. This would allow a judge, after making certain findings, to depart from some mandatory minimum sentences, such as those for drug trafficking.

The panel also said safety valves could be considered for other, unspecified mandatory minimum sentences, just not those for the "seven deadly sin" crimes, such as murder, rape, kidnapping and armed robbery.

The full 25-page report with additional recommendations by the "Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform for Georgians" can be accessed at this link.

November 19, 2011 at 09:30 AM | Permalink


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