ATLANTA — Lawmakers are poised to consider substantial changes to the state’s criminal justice system that could reshape the way Georgia courts are run, overhaul the state’s expensive prison system and even transform the way offenders are sentenced.
The effort has the backing of conservative groups, judges and a long list of prominent attorneys. And it has the endorsement of powerful politicians and Gov. Nathan Deal, a longtime attorney whose son, a superior court judge, leads an ambitious program in north Georgia.
Don’t expect an overnight overhaul. Legislators haven’t decided which of the recommendations outlined last week by a criminal justice commission they will propose during the 2012 legislative session. And advocates have warned it will take painstaking work to build support for some of the more costly reforms.
But they say there’s a growing consensus among powerbrokers and politicians that changes are needed to reduce annual corrections spending funding that already tops $1 billion and target stubborn recidivism rates that remain stuck at nearly 30 percent.
“Why this year?” asked Ken Shigley, the president of the State Bar of Georgia. “Why not?”
The changes recommended by the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform range from big-ticket items to low-hanging fruit that would require tweaks to current law. If lawmakers do nothing to change sentencing rules, the state will have to pump another $264 million into the prison system by 2016 to expand capacity.
“How much can be passed in 2012 and how much can be implemented, I’m not certain,” said state Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, a Decatur Democrat who served on the council with Shigley. “But we’ll have a very strong beginning in 2012.”
Pricey suggestions include building a statewide system of drug courts and other so-called accountability courts that offer alternative sentencing for certain offenders, and adding more community-based treatment centers for low-level offenders. Those proposals could require a substantial investment and time to implement, but backers say they will save corrections funding in the long run.
But the committee also came up with a range of less costly policy shifts, such as reducing prison terms for nonviolent offenses, raising the thresholds for suspects charged with certain felonies, decriminalizing a host of minor traffic offenses and creating a “safety valve” that allows judges to depart from mandatory minimum sentences for some drug charges.
The safety valve, in particular, seems to resonate with lawmakers.
“A lot of legislators have heard from judges that they are tying their hands,” said state Rep. Jay Powell, a Camilla Republican who also is on the council. “They say, ‘You give me all this authority as a judge but then you tie my hands.’ I think it’s a combination of things that have made the safety valve percolate at this time.”
Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Carol Hunstein also voiced her support for giving judges more discretion.
“Having served as a trial judge, I know there are really differences in the same kinds of crime when you look at the defendants and the facts of the crime,” she said.
Lawmakers are expected to prepare at least an initial draft of proposals by the start of the legislative session in January, but some more substantial changes could evolve over years. Although some ideas — such as giving judges more sentencing discretion — have emerged before, lawmakers say there’s a growing sense they could actually get passed in 2012.
Many of the effort’s supporters credit Deal, a Republican whose son Jason heads an alternative sentencing program for drug offenders in Hall County, for making sentencing reform a priority. Even Democrats acknowledge he’s the driving force behind reforms their supporters have long sought.
“I actually think we have a governor that is interested, and to be honest that matters. I’ll give him credit for having interest in this,” said state Sen. Curt Thompson, a Tucker Democrat who serves on the joint legislative committee charged with drafting a proposal.
But Thompson said it’s far too early to view even the most minor tweaks as a given. He said he’s cautiously optimistic that the reforms will move forward, but worried that they could fall victim to political infighting during next year’s legislative session.
“There’s a desire in an election year to move certain things, to be able to say you’ve done some policy changes. And when budgets are so tight, this is a way to do something positive on policy,” he said. “But it’s always a minefield in an election year because things are so partisan.”