The Georgia Court of Appeals wrote in a recent decision that a judge went too far in sending someone to prison, a ruling that is extremely rare but is welcomed by some in the Augusta legal community.
On Nov. 29, judges wrote that Undreas Davis’ 150-year prison sentence without the possibility of parole for property crimes was “grossly disproportionate to his crimes, shocking the conscience and constituting cruel and unusual punishment.”
To criminal defense lawyers Pete Theodocion and Charles Lyons in Augusta, the decision was long overdue. Giving someone a life sentence for nonviolent crimes is a waste of taxpayer money, they said.
“We can’t afford it, and frankly we don’t have the room,” Theodocion said.
Because of increased mandatory minimum sentences and changes in the parole system, people convicted of violent crimes are spending more time behind bars, leaving little room for others, Theodocion said.
The sentencing reform wave rolling across the country reached Georgia this year, and a new law went into effect this summer that reduced potential prison sentences for many drug and property crimes. It also increased the establishment of specialty courts, such as the drug court in the Augusta Judicial Circuit that has been operating for four years.
Superior Court Judge James G. Blanchard Jr. has shepherded the drug court in Augusta since its beginning.
“I’m a firm believer in accountability courts,” he said.
The program costs just under $4 a day per person compared with $45-55 a day for a jail cell, he said. It’s not just the financial issue; the court is saving lives and reuniting families, Blanchard said. So far, 57 people have graduated from drug court.
According to the state Department of Corrections, more than 52,000 people are in prison at a cost of around $19,000 per inmate last year.
About half of the inmates committed nonviolent crimes.
In contrast, the state government spent $9,827 in 2009 to educate one student for the year, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s most recent Kids Count study.
District Attorney Ashley Wright recognizes the high cost of incarceration in Georgia – and the high rate of repeat offenders.
“I agreed that low-level offenders are not necessarily the ones that we want to spend our dollars on, but repeat offenders should not be given a green light to commit crimes with no fear of meaningful consequences,” she wrote in an e-mail.
That some people are thieves or drug addicts who won’t change is true, Theodocion and Lyons agreed, but prison doesn’t change them or deter anyone else, they said.
Davis, who had previous felony convictions for property crimes, was convicted in Douglas County of three counts of theft and 12 counts of identity fraud. The judge sentenced him to 150 years, telling him at his 2009 sentencing hearing: “You will never victimize anyone again, sir, because you’ll be in prison for the rest of your life.”
Two weeks after its initial ruling, the appeals court found there wasn’t proof Davis had three prior felony convictions – the legal trigger for a prison sentence without the possibility of parole.
Lyons questioned the fairness that someone convicted of such crimes in Douglas County gets 150 years when the same person might get two years in Fulton County or 10 in Richmond County. The fairness is also an issue for state taxpayers, he said.
Wright agreed that although the prison costs can become pointless, sometimes it’s about more than money.
“Family heirlooms can be valued monetarily, but they cannot be replaced,” she said. “A working jalopy that gets the owner to work, the grocery, and church is far more valuable than $500 and a car payment. The emotional impact on the victim of a residential burglary is unmeasurable and lasting.”