ATLANTA — A panel created to overhaul Georgia’s clogged corrections system released a series of ambitious recommendations Friday, including one suggesting that prison terms for some nonviolent offenses be reduced and more alternative sentencing programs be established for low-level criminals.
The report by the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform also recommends more residential treatment programs for drug offenders, increased supervision of released inmates and higher thresholds for suspects to be charged with certain felonies.
The council, created at the urging of Republican Gov. Nathan Deal to address annual prison costs that already top $1 billion, warned that Georgia would have to pump an additional $264 million into the prison system by 2016 to expand capacity if nothing is done.
Few expect Georgia lawmakers to embrace all the proposals, but advocacy groups and politicians backing the effort said they were encouraged by the initial findings. Deal called the recommendations a good “starting point” while House Speaker David Ralston said he’d make them a priority in next year’s legislative session.
A substantial overhaul could face a tough road in the Republican-controlled Georgia Legislature. But the 13-member panel of lawmakers, judges and prominent attorneys was quick to highlight similar overhauls made by conservative lawmakers in Texas that saved that state more than $2 billion in new prison costs.
The panel was charged with slashing the state’s incarceration rate – the highest in the nation, according to a Pew Center on the States study. The state’s prison population has more than doubled to nearly 56,000 inmates during the past 20 years, and Georgia now spends more than $1 billion each year on the corrections system – up from $492 million in 1990.
The high-cost strategy hasn’t exactly paid off. Georgia’s recidivism rate has been stuck at nearly 30 percent over the past decade, the council said, and the inmate population is expected to rise by another 8 percent within the next five years to reach about 60,000 inmates.
Some 60 percent of inmates are drug and property offenders, and many of them are low-risk criminals. In 2010, for instance, 25 percent of all new inmates had never before been incarcerated but were sent to prison for committing these types of nonviolent crimes.
At the same time, authorities have struggled to effectively supervise the growing number offenders released on probation and parole. Georgia’s parole population has jumped by 9 percent since 2000, while the number of offenders on felony probation has soared by 22 percent.