ATLANTA — Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal signed legislation Wednesday that will overhaul the state’s criminal justice system to provide alternative sentences for nonviolent offenders and reduce soaring prison costs.
Sentencing reform became an early priority of the new administration last year.
Faced with budget pressures, Deal and other law-and-order Republican governors have pushed to overhaul years of policies that
were designed to lock up more criminals and put them away for longer periods.
In many cases, Republicans had pushed for the policies decades ago.
Deal added a human side to the discussion Wednesday, becoming emotional as he recounted witnessing the impact of alternative sentencing.
“To listen to the stories of the lives that have been changed, the families that have been reunited … lives that, quite frankly have been cast aside by the system … had a tremendous emotional effect on me,” Deal said. “This is the better way.”
Deal, a former judge, and his wife, Sandra, have attended and spoken at graduation ceremonies held at the northeast Georgia drug court presided over by their son, Superior Court Judge Jason Deal.
The governor touted the new law as one that will save taxpayer dollars while making prison space available for the state’s most violent criminals.
Georgia’s prison system costs taxpayers more than $1 billion a year.
Nationwide, the total cost of incarcerating state inmates swelled from $12 billion in 1988 to more than $50 billion in 2008.
Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Carol Hunstein said the reforms will make the state safer.
“The justice system is really addressing the root cause of the criminal behavior,” said Hunstein, who looked on as Deal signed the bill into law. “Hopefully in addressing the root problem, we’re going to keep people from committing other crimes and reunite them with their families and make them taxpayers, not tax burdens.”
Leaders from all three branches of Georgia state government had called for sentencing reform.
Both chambers of the General Assembly unanimously backed the measure, the product of months of discussions.
Much of the new law was taken from recommendations submitted by the Special Joint Committee on Georgia Criminal Justice that was created last year.
The council recommended more residential treatment programs for drug offenders, increased supervision of released inmates and higher thresholds for suspects to be charged with certain felonies. It also warned last fall that Georgia would have to pump an additional $264 million into the prison system by 2016 to expand capacity if nothing were done.
Deal announced Tuesday he will extend that committee, set to expire this year, to build on its work and look at other ways to improve the system.
State agencies and other organizations will now begin the task of implementing the law. Deal included $10 million in the fiscal year 2013 budget to pay for the expansion of accountability courts.
“The court system is going to have to rise to the occasion,” Hunstein said. “It’s going to take extra funding for these courts to operate properly and achieve the results we hope they will achieve.”
By Jan. 1, the Judicial Council of Georgia must establish standards for the drug and mental health courts.
Next year, the agency must help drug court divisions implement the new guidelines. The council then must create a certification and peer review process for these courts. The courts will need to be certified or have a waiver to qualify for state funding. Courts will be subject to review and re-certification beginning in 2015.
Sentencing changes for theft, shoplifting and forgery also will take effect July 1.
Starting next July, drug possession prosecutions will shift to a weight-based system that supporters say will more fairly punish violators. Drugs such as heroin, LSD and Ecstasy would be phased in next year, and drugs including cocaine and amphetamines would be added in July, 2014.
The bill also addresses mandatory reporting requirements for suspected child abuse, provisions for restrictions on who can access a job seeker’s criminal record and a shortened period for suspects held in probation detention centers.