It isn’t often that everyone in government agrees, but in May a sweeping reform of Georgia’s justice system (HB 1176) received unanimous support from both the State House and Senate. The reform seeks to reduce the cost of corrections by reducing prison populations, reducing recidivism, creating innovative treatment programs, and modifying mandatory minimums, among other things.
Before the reform, Georgia’s prison population was projected to grow by 8% by 2016, costing an additional $264 million in spending. The prison population has already doubled in the past two decades, and grown by 35% since 2000. In 2007, 1 in 70 Georgians was behind bars, the fourth highest incarceration rate in the country. Corrections cost the state more than $1 billion per year. Even so, the recidivism rate has remained just under 30% over the past decade.
The new law seeks to increase the number of community-based sentencing options. In 2011, there were 800 inmates housed in county jails awaiting a bed at a Probation Detention Center. There were 750 inmates in jails awaiting a slot at a Residential Substance Abuse Center. Georgia’s felony probation population has grown 22% since 2000 and its parole population has grown 9%. Additionally, Georgia’s probation sentences are on average almost 7 years, twice as long as the national average. The law seeks to increase the amount of community intervention resources, in order to reduce recidivism.
The law also seeks to expand the number of accountability courts, including mental health, veterans’ and drug courts. Through an electronic system, courts will submit performance data to be analyzed. This data will be used to create standards and practices for the courts to follow, based upon outcomes. In 2010 more than 5,000 lower-risk drug and property offenders went to prison for the first time. This is 25% of all admissions in 2010. The new measures will seek to reduce this number, as studies have shown that sending low-risk drug offenders to prison actually increases their likelihood of recidivism.
Mandatory minimum safety valves in the law will give judges greater discretion on how to sentence low-risk drug offenders. This, coupled with increased community supervision and resources is intended to curb recidivism. Additionally, the law will raise the felony level for most theft crimes to $1,500 from $500, which was last changed in 1982. The law creates categories for burglaries, with more severe punishments for break-ins of dwellings. Different grades of forgery offenses have also been created.
Evidence based practices will also guide procedures for probation and parole. A report by the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform for Georgians indicates that these changes can reduce recidivism by up to 30%. In 2010, 1,592 prisoners were released with no supervision to follow, neither parole nor probation. Increased monitoring and community programs in the law seek to address this.
The new law also decriminalizes certain traffic offenses, freeing up space in the clogged court system. Misdemeanor traffic offenses will be changed to violations and be payable by a fine. This does not include major offenses, such as DUI or driving without a license. Fines will be tied to license renewal and vehicle registration. Money saved from these change will be reinvested into the costs of increased community services and programs, reducing overall costs in the long run.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution Governor to Sign Sweeping Justice Reform Bill: http://www.ajc.com/news/georgia-government/governor-to-sign-sweeping-1429614.html
House Bill 1176: http://www1.legis.ga.gov/legis/2011_12/pdf/hb1176.pdf
WSJ Market Watch Pew Applauds Georgia: http://www.marketwatch.com/story/pew-applauds-georgia-leaders-for-enacting-comprehensive-public-safety-reform-2012-05-02
Report of the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform for Georgians: http://www.legis.ga.gov/Documents/GACouncilReport-FINALDRAFT.pdf