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A progressive take on criminal justice reform

Georgia lawmakers aim to reduce prison populations

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Since at least the early '90s, when skyrocketing crime rates caused an arguably justified nationwide freak-out, taking a hard line with criminals has been the politically popular recourse. Locking up criminals and throwing away the keys became the preferred method for meting out justice, particularly among conservative lawmakers. Old habits like these die hard within in the Grand Old Party, especially when they're typically rewarded with votes. That's why it was odd — borderline bizarre — to hear Georgia's new Republican governor publicly advocate for a more progressive rethink of our criminal justice policies.

On Feb. 16, Gov. Nathan Deal — flanked for effect by leaders from all three branches of the state's government — took to a podium at the capitol to help Rep. Jay Neal, R-LaFayette, unveil legislation to establish a council to study reform of Georgia's criminal justice system. In the process, Deal invoked traditionally liberal themes seldom touched on by Republican politicos. He talked about the "human cost" of an overly punitive justice system, and pointed to improving efforts to actually rehabilitate offenders rather than just punish them. At the core of the discussion, however, was a typical conservative refrain: it's belt-tightening time.

Kelly McCutchen of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank that's shepherding the reform effort, is more direct: "The whole purpose is fiscal responsibility."

But despite the necessity to decrease the amount of money the state spends incarcerating its prisoners, and despite bipartisan support of the effort across all three branches of government, truly reconfiguring the way Georgia's criminal justice system operates might be a more complicated task than it appears. Stringent sentencing guidelines — former Gov. Zell Miller's "Two Strikes" policy, for instance — have the potential to thwart an otherwise sure-fire effort.

By common consensus — underscored by Deal's own statements — Georgia's corrections system has rapidly become unsustainable. Each year, the state spends in excess of $1 billion incarcerating more than 60,000 prisoners. As prison populations have steadily increased, so too have the associated costs.

In 2009, while 26 states saw a decrease in their prison populations — resulting in the first nationwide drop in prisoner totals in 38 years — Georgia was among the 24 states that saw increases, according to the Pew Center on the States. And, according to Deal, the year-over-year increase in Georgia's inmate population nearly doubled last year, from 1.6 percent to about 3 percent.

Those hikes may sound modest until you take into account the enormous amount of money it costs to incarcerate a prisoner for a year — $18,000, according to Deal, more than four times what the state spends educating a K-12 student annually. Georgia now has the nation's fourth-largest prison population and, according to the GPPF, one out of every 13 Georgians are currently incarcerated or under some form of correctional supervision — the highest rate of any state.

Neal's legislation would create a commission that will study ways to reduce the prison population and submit its findings next year. In advance of the commission's actual formation, strategies already being discussed include increasing the use of front-end diversionary options like drug and mental health courts — which can recommend treatment rather than punishment for nonviolent offenders, and such back-end options as day reporting centers, which can provide jobs to people on probation or parole.

The Southern Center for Human Rights has always advocated for alternatives to incarceration. "For years we've been encouraging lawmakers to become smarter on crime rather than the taking the easier and more politically popular route to be tougher on crime," says SCHR Executive Director Sara Totonchi. "I think this movement on the part of our Republican leaders to look more closely at who we incarcerate and why is very responsible."

Still, Totonchi says existing sentencing guidelines could thwart state legislators' good intentions. In 1994, then-governor Miller signed the Georgia Sentence Reform Act — better known as the Two Strikes law — which mandates life sentences for criminals twice convicted of one of the "seven deadly" crimes (murder, armed robbery, kidnapping, rape, aggravated child molestation, aggravated sodomy and aggravated sexual battery). In the same year, he also signed the Georgia School Safety and Juvenile Justice Reform act, which transfers teenagers accused of one of the "seven deadlies" from juvenile to adult court, subjecting them to lengthier adult sentences. The effects of these laws are compounded by mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes. Totonchi says mandatory minimums essentially tie a judge's hands, preventing them from weighing punishment on a case-by-case basis.

She points to armed robbery as an example, a crime that mandates a 10-year prison sentence. Says Totonchi, "You can get that if you're the driver of the car. Some of the more egregious cases we've seen were teenagers where it wasn't even a real gun being used — it was either a toy or a finger in their pocket — and these kids still got 10 years."

The GPPF's McCutchen is unsure whether the commission's recommendations will deal with sentencing guidelines — "I don't know if we'll address sentencing, but we'll look at it," he said — but concedes that it will be among the trickier issues the commission deals with. "Sentencing is the most controversial issue," McCutchen says. "I think the message is that everything is on the table — if the facts support that these sentencing guidelines are not really protecting the public, then [the commission will] look at them."

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