Georgia considering big changes in justice

Effort spans costs, sentencing
Newly-arrived prisoners wait to be processed at the state prison in Jackson, Ga. After years of little progress, Georgia lawmakers could consider adopting reforms in the next session to overhaul the state's overcrowded and expensive prison system.

ATLANTA — Lawmakers are poised to consider substantial changes to the state’s criminal justice system that could reshape the way Georgia courts are run, overhaul the state’s expensive prison system and even transform the way offenders are sentenced.

The effort has the backing of conservative groups, judges and a long list of prominent attorneys. And it has the endorsement of powerful politicians and Gov. Nathan Deal, a longtime attorney whose son, a superior court judge, leads an ambitious program in north Georgia.

Don’t expect an overnight overhaul. Legislators haven’t decided which of the recommendations outlined last week by a criminal justice commission they will propose during the 2012 legislative session. And advocates have warned it will take painstaking work to build support for some of the more costly reforms.

But they say there’s a growing consensus among powerbrokers and politicians that changes are needed to reduce annual corrections spending funding that already tops $1 billion and target stubborn recidivism rates that remain stuck at nearly 30 percent.

The changes recommended by the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform range from big-ticket items to low-hanging fruit that would require tweaks to current law. If lawmakers do nothing to change sentencing rules, the state will have to pump another $264 million into the prison system by 2016 to expand capacity.

 

PRICEY SUGGESTIONS include building a statewide system of drug courts and other so-called accountability courts that offer alternative sentencing for certain offenders, and adding more community-based treatment centers for low-level offenders. Those proposals could require a substantial investment and time to implement, but backers say they will save corrections funding in the long run.

But the committee also came up with a range of less costly policy shifts, such as reducing prison terms for nonviolent offenses, raising the thresholds for suspects charged with certain felonies, decriminalizing a host of minor traffic offenses and creating a “safety valve” that allows judges to depart from mandatory minimum sentences for some drug charges.

The safety valve, in particular, seems to resonate with lawmakers.

“A lot of legislators have heard from judges that they are tying their hands,” said state Rep. Jay Powell, a Camilla Republican who also is on the council. “They say, ‘You give me all this authority as a judge but then you tie my hands.’ I think it’s a combination of things that have made the safety valve percolate at this time.”

Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Carol Hunstein also supported giving judges more discretion.

“Having served as a trial judge, I know there are really differences in the same kinds of crime when you look at the defendants and the facts of the crime,” she said.

Lawmakers are expected to prepare at least an initial draft of proposals by the start of the legislative session in January.

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