ATLANTA -- A year after relaxing sentencing for minor crimes, Georgia is seeing the first hints of an inmate-population decline.
The most visible signs are at the county level where the total number of inmates in county jails has shrunk from 39,825 in April 2010 to 35,978 last month, a 9.7 percent decline. Still, 19 jails have more inmates than they are designed to house, but in 2010, 31 of them were over capacity.
The impact is not yet obvious in state prisons. The 48,088 in government and private prisons and detention centers at the end of last year compares to 46,784 at the end of 2010, a 3.3 percent increase.
Gov. Nathan Deal said he didn’t expect state prisons to shrink significantly for five years as he rolls out so-called accountability courts that offer local supervision for drug and alcohol offenders and those with mental illness. Keeping those offenders in their communities and out of state prisons will free up money for their treatment, he said.
“I’d like for us to be able to divert some of the money that we’re putting into the corrections system now into more on the front end into diversion and treatment,” he said. “Treatment is another important part in making sure we don’t have an increase in recidivism, and treatment sometimes is very expensive. Anything we can save on the incarceration phase, then we will ultimately see those incarceration costs reduced.”
While he’d like to see prison savings soon, he doesn’t figure it will happen in time to be included in the budget he’ll begin considering in the fall for the following fiscal year.
Rep. Jay Neal, chairman of the House State Properties Committee, said a key aspect of the law change is the implementation of evaluations of offenders before they are sentenced to advise judges whether an alternative to prison is appropriate.
“When you’re able to match the sentence with the offender, you’re going to get better outcomes,” said Neal, R-LaFayette.
Prisons are on the tail end of the judicial system, so changes take longer to impact their inmates serving long sentences. On the county level, closer to the beginning of an offender’s penal career, the impact can come quicker.
For example, the total county inmate population is 76 percent of capacity today compared to 89 percent in 2010. And just 8 percent of those behind county bars are awaiting transfer for state prison, but that percentage was 14 percent in 2010.
That eases pressure on county commissioners and sheriffs to find room for them and the money to house them.