Saturday, January 7, 2012

Criminal Justice Reform: A Challenge for the 2012 Legislative Session

Each year, criminal justice is a serious concern for the Georgia Legislature.  Fighting crime is always an important platform for lawmakers, however with costs increasing and budgets tightening, changes need to be made to the $1 billion a year corrections system. While costs of corrections are increasing, many question whether or not business as usual is effective.

House Bill 265 from the 2011 session of the General Assembly created the Special Council for Criminal Justice Reform for Georgians. The Council, made up of appointees from the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Speaker of the House and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Georgia, was established to address the spiraling costs of crime and punishment. With help from the Pew Charitable Trusts, they were tasked to identify the current problems and make recommendations on how to best use the state resources. The Council made its report to the legislature on Nov. 1, 2011.

The Council found that prison population in the past two decades has doubled to nearly 56,000 inmates, placing 1 in every 70 adult Georgians behind bars. Projections show that by 2016, that inmate population will grow to 60,000.

Georgia’s prisons are already operating at 107 percent capacity. Much of this space is presently being taken by non-violent offenders. Yet this rising prison population is not deterring crime as recidivism—offenders returning to the community to commit new crime—remains unchanged.

Similarly, the Council found the state’s community based corrections systems are stretched to the point of becoming ineffective. As of 2010, there were 156,000 probationers and 22,000 parolees supervised in Georgia. Those charged with supervising these offenders are without the tools to rehabilitate as the services and programs that the officers refer offenders—particularly substance abuse and mental heath services—are insufficient and in some cases non-existent.

Overall, the Council found that business as usual in the criminal justice system in Georgia is going to break Georgians and needs to become more effective in preventing recidivism. In its November 2011 report, the Council made a three part recommendation that called for improving public safety and holding offenders accountable; focusing expensive prison beds on serious offenders; and examining the priorities of reinvestment of funds in the criminal justice system.

The overall plan outlined in the report calls on the system to strengthen community based corrections (probation and parole; allowing for increased supervision; and more resources for rehabilitation). The Council also saw a great deal of benefit in “accountability courts” that use a carrot and stick approach of intensive court supervision over a period of rehabilitation.

Offenders in these accountability court programs see a judge routinely and interact with a panel of counselors, probation officers and drug testing personnel on a daily basis. Offenders that are making progress are rewarded while offenders that slip spend short periods in jail. These courts presently function in several counties as “Drug Court” and “DUI Court” and are enjoying very successful numbers in both rehabilitation and preventing recidivism at costs far less than incarceration.  Accountability courts received attention last year as Governor Deal’s son, a Hall County Superior Court judge, oversees the drug court in that county.

While strengthening community based programs offers more opportunity for rehabilitation to non-violent offenders, it frees up the expensive bed space for serious violent offenders that need to be removed from society. To effectuate such changes will require a reinvestment of the funds spent on the criminal justice system. Money will need to be focused on community based treatment for mental health and drug treatment as well as funds to establish the statewide system of accountability courts.

Now, the task of breaking the centuries old model of crime and punishment in the State of Georgia is laid at the feet of the Georgia General Assembly just in time for the 2012 session. Implementing these changes is not only going to require a reinvestment of funds but also a change in the mindset of the many people and agencies that operate the criminal justice system. While many of the players are resistant to change, it is clear that Georgia can no longer afford business as usual.

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