Across Georgia, more than 500 felons have escaped from state-run halfway houses over the past five years, including some convicted of rape, armed robbery and voluntary manslaughter. These are among Georgia’s so-called “seven deadly sins” and should exclude an inmate from release to a transitional center, according to Department of Corrections policy.
An analysis by The Augusta Chronicle shows, however, that policy is not always followed.
Records show Yusef Hassan Armstead walked away from the Augusta Transitional Center on Aug. 15, 2011. His GDOC record shows he was convicted of armed robbery and voluntary manslaughter in DeKalb County for incidents in 1998 and 2004, respectively. He was recaptured 11 days after leaving the center.
Beverly Barber was originally charged with murder for the death of Errin Michelle Hattaway in Lowndes County, but pleaded guilty in 2004 to voluntary manslaughter and concealing a death. She walked away from the Metro Transitional Center on April 11, 2010, but eventually was recaptured.
Dexter Green was convicted of possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime, robbery and aggravated assault in 2005. He began serving his time, then walked away from the Atlanta Transitional Center, but was captured the next day.
The Georgia Department of Corrections did not respond to a request for comment.
From a state budget perspective, transitional centers offer taxpayers a break by making room in Georgia’s crowded prisons. The prison population has doubled over the past two decades and the annual cost for housing inmates has risen to $1 billion, according to a legislative report completed last November.
Low-risk offenders, such as those convicted of drug and property crimes, make up 60 percent of the prison population.
The convictions of those who escaped from transitional centers are also mostly low-level offenses, but not all. Sex offenders do not qualify for release to a transitional center unless recommended by the parole board. Stephen Dewayne Nutt, a sex offender convicted of three counts of statutory rape, was serving time for burglary when he walked away from the Atlanta Transitional Center.
A majority of felons who escape from transitional centers do not commit new crimes, but it does happen. The most recent example occurred in March, when Julius Edward Taylor escaped from the Augusta Transitional Center. Taylor was serving time for two 2007 robberies in middle Georgia’s Laurens County. He was recaptured a week later at Maxwell House Apartments and arrested on a charge of escape and two counts of robbery after investigators say he robbed Sundrees Urban Market on Broad Street and the Rite Aid Pharmacy on Walton Way.
Gary McCall was serving time for robbery when he went missing from the Columbus Transitional Center for more than a year, beginning Aug. 2, 2010. During that period, he received additional charges of armed robbery, possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime, hijacking a motor vehicle, obstruction of a law enforcement officer and fleeing and eluding, records show.
The “seven deadly sins” law, enacted in 1994 spelled out seven felonies that guaranteed at least 10 years’ imprisonment upon conviction. In 1996, legislators made the law harsher by abolishing parole for the six non-murder crimes. Two convictions meant life without parole.
Reforms in the past two years have eased some of the harshest sanctions and allowed the last year of a sentence to be served in a transitional center for qualifying inmates.
Records show that felons convicted of rape and murder before the law’s passage were released to transitional centers. Phil Mincey was convicted of murder in 1985 and also served three years for escaping from the Dodge County Jail in 1980. On Sept. 2, 2011, he did not return from his work release program. He was recaptured five days later on the Middle Georgia College campus, “trying to fit in,” according to a report from the WMAZ television station in Macon, Ga.
Henry McBride, who escaped from the Columbus Transitional Center on Aug. 4, 2010, was convicted of rape, sodomy and armed robbery in the 1980s.
Georgia’s transitional centers provide a home for inmates enrolled in a work release program. They aim to provide a measure of independence to newly released inmates within a structured environment. Qualifications for release include the mental and physical capacity to work and that the inmate be within 24 months of a tentative parole month.
State Rep. Jay Neal, R-LaFayette, introduced legislation based on recommendations from the governor’s 2011 criminal justice reform committee, which emphasized treatment over incarceration for certain crimes, along with changing penalty levels for property crimes such as theft and forgery.
He said there are both long-term and immediate benefits reaped from transitional centers. The front-end budgetary relief comes from relieving overcrowding in prisons, but the public also gains from the transition process, Neal said.
“The opportunities to transition more effectively and reduce recidivism is where you really get your savings,” Neal said.