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Georgia weighs overhaul of state prison system

Lawmakers consider bill that would send fewer to prison

Sunday, March 11, 2012 10:51 AM
Last updated 8:55 PM
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ATLANTA — Supporters hope Georgia House Bill 1176 will save taxpayers money by reducing the number of criminals behind bars and moving more to intensive supervision, which is less costly than prison.

The bill attempts to accomplish that goal by sending fewer people to prison, letting some off early and helping offenders to avoid repeating their mistakes.

“We have an amazing opportunity to save lives as well as tax dollars,” Gov. Nathan Deal said.

Georgians overwhelmingly support the changes, according to a survey released last month by the Pew Center on the States.

In a telephone poll, 85 percent of the 600 likely voters questioned in January said they agree that the sentence didn’t matter as much as reducing the likelihood of a repeat crime.


The bill, which is based on recommendations from a special council Deal appointed of judges, prosecutors and penal experts, would stem the flow into prison through diversion and decriminalization.

Prosecutors already have the ability to divert their choice of nonviolent offenders who suffer from addiction or mental illness to so-called accountability courts that dole out self-help tasks with the threat of prison for noncompliance. There aren’t many of those types of courts outside major cities, so Deal added $10 million to next year’s budget to fund more of them.

The council called for those caught with an illegal drug – but not making or selling it – to get probation automatically, but the bill doesn’t go that far, leaving it in the hands of prosecutors and judges.

The Pew poll shows 83 percent of those surveyed accept alternative sentencing for drug offenders.

The bill also shrinks the number of inmates by raising the threshold for what merits a stiff sentence.

In the council’s view, the least-risky, nonviolent offenders should get intensive probation instead of prison time. The bill, introduced by Rep. Rich Golick, R-Smyrna, only tests that idea over the next two years in a couple of judicial circuits.

However, it does divide burglaries into three varieties. Third-degree burglary would have a lighter sentence than second degree and so on.

Bad checks, under the bill, would have to be at least $500 rather than just $100. Shoplifting would have to amount to more than $1,000 rather than $500 now, and other theft would have to include at least $1,000 instead of the present $500.

The reform council had recommended a higher threshold still of $1,500. It’s another of the differences Deal said he had with the legislation.

“The bill departs from the recommendations of the Criminal Justice Reform Council, not significantly, but in some areas that I think will not produce the results that the council had originally intended,” Deal said, noting that the council’s threshold would have saved taxpayers more.

Golick replied, “I know that reasonable minds differ.”


Besides bringing fewer people in the prison front door, the bill would shoo more out the back door.

It releases from prison six months early every inmate due for discharge after a sentence of at least two years. That final half year will come with intensive supervision and a customized transition plan designed to help ex-cons adjust to freedom and personal responsibility.

At the same time, it systemizes those transition plans for everyone on probation and parole. They would be able to earn credit for completing the steps on their plans that would end their supervision early. Or, if they stray, they would face progressively stiffer penalties without having to automatically return to prison for minor, technical violations like having a drink.

Experts say such strategies used in other states have reduced the rate at which criminals commit new crimes.

“Legislators are not being asked to reduce sentences, but to adopt new, more effective sentencing that yields greater benefits for the taxpayer’s dollar,” said Doug Ammar, the executive director of the Georgia Justice Project, an Atlanta-based foundation that helps defendants and advocates for sentencing reform.


The reform bill is awaiting action by the joint legislative committee that Golick co-chairs with Sen. Bill Hamrick, R-Carrollton. The men chair the House and Senate judiciary committees where law-and-order bills normally are considered, but in this case, the measure is only subject to committee scrutiny once instead of in the two panels.

It also isn’t subject to last Wednesday’s Crossover Day deadline that doomed other statewide bills that had not been passed by the chamber where they were introduced.

“By forming a joint committee, we are able to facilitate open discussions with the House and efficiently amend the bill to its best possible draft,” Hamrick said.

In the remaining 10 working days of the 2012 legislative session, advocates plan to push for several amendments.

“I think everything is still up for consideration,” said Chara Fisher Jackson, the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia.

Paroling of elderly prisoners is a goal of the ACLU. Safeguarding errors on criminal-background reports is a priority of the Georgia Justice Project.

Deal has his own amendments in mind.

“We just need to work with the author of the bill and the leadership of the House and the Senate and hopefully get it back closer to what the original recommendations were,” he said.

Golick isn’t closing any doors yet.

“There (are) always going to be agreements and disagreements on a bill,” he said. “I think we made it clear that the bill we put in is a starting point. It’s a starting point of negotiations between the House, the Senate and the governor.”

The next few days are likely to be hectic ones for everyone interested in those negotiations.

“Georgia is facing new costs of $264 million in the next five years if no action is taken, and we don’t have time to waste,” Hamrick said.

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Craig Spinks
Craig Spinks 03/11/12 - 05:34 pm
(D)ichotomy, Implicit in this


Implicit in this whole "evolution" toward a less inhumane system of criminal justice is the notion that punishment is barbaric.

Of course, the misguided folks who push this "more humane" approach in dealing with folks who demonstrate criminal behaviors aren't the victims of such criminal behaviors. Ask the folks who live in E. Augusta and along Lyman Street what they think about these new plans.

Oops, I forget. They and their opinions don't count, do they, Governor Deal?

specsta 03/11/12 - 05:37 pm
Continuing to lock folks up

Continuing to lock folks up for non-violent offenses make no sense, it is a complete waste of money and has no benefit to society. Jail and prison should be for VIOLENT offenders - period.

Rather than spend $32,000 a year to lock someone up for a non-violent offense, how about funneling that money into educating that same young person and give them a chance at life? This country cannot continue down the road of "prison as a solution". The governor has the right idea.

America, the land of the "free", locks up more of its citizens (2 million and counting) than any other country on the face of the planet. It's just not right. Alternative solutions must be implemented or the blow-back from creating a society where a jail cell is deemed more important than a classroom will destroy this country.

dickworth1 03/11/12 - 10:49 pm
Spectsta, I don't know about

Spectsta, I don't know about you but I pay school tax every year to educate these people, but they choose to take the illegal way and not
earn an education and work for what they have. What happens when the so call non-violent keep repeating their crimes because they do not have to fear being put in jail? Also keep in mind that criminals will get
into more violent crimes as they grow. First shoplifting, then bank robbery!

Techfan 03/12/12 - 05:49 am
Lock 'em all up and give them

Lock 'em all up and give them longer sentences. Put 'em on a prison farm and sell the produce to WalMart. Have 'em work in factories building iPads and sewing t-shirts. That way we'll have a first class penal system just like, well, China.

Riverman1 03/12/12 - 08:02 am
We have to punish and

We have to punish and rehabilitiate these people in the most cost effective way in hopes of preventing them from breaking the law again. Georgia has one of the most imprisoned populations in the WORLD. We don't have the money to keep putting people in jail. Something has to be done. We now have backdoor ways of keeping convicted criminals out of jail with things such as drug and veterans' courts. This is simply recognizing the reality.

freeradical 03/12/12 - 08:12 am
The fact that this includes

The fact that this includes the feeble brained logic of mitigating

the violent act of burglary says it all .

This is the future.

It is also the same logic that will soon lower the age of consent.

The trending humiliation and imprisonment of countless teachers ,

doctors , clergy , mayors , politicians , judges , scientists , investors ,

etc,etc,etc,,,, just

becoming to intolerable for a sophisticated , progressive society to


only me
only me 03/12/12 - 12:23 pm
Georgia has one of the

Georgia has one of the highest prison population in this country and is going broke trying to keep that record, spend the money on education not prisons, harsh long sentences is breaking GA. bank account, Time to get in tune with some other states and stop the harsh long sentences, for the same crime in another state will get you 5 yrs. in the state of will get you 20 yrs. come on people lighten up or pay later............
Tuff on crime is very costly today, rehabilitate them, lock them up & throw away the key has to go............

toolman30909 03/13/12 - 07:21 am
I agree. Non Violent

I agree. Non Violent offenders should be rehabilitated as best we can. prison institutionilizes offenders and 9 times out of 10 they are worse coming out then going in. someone gets locked up for shoplifting after 6 or 8 months of prison they get out no one will hire them no one will give them a second chance so next step is armed robbery to pay the rent or to put food on the table. People make mistakes and a second chance is all some need to turn it around. Not making excuses for those who choose to break the law but sometimes a second chance is all thats needed to turn someone life around who out there has never gotten a second chance. At work, at school, in your family life, this should be no different

Little Lamb
Little Lamb 03/13/12 - 07:41 am
Rehabilitation comes from

Rehabilitation comes from within; it comes from the heart of an individual. What must society do to the outside of a criminal while that person attempts to rehabilitate himself?

Little Lamb
Little Lamb 03/13/12 - 07:46 am
From the article: Bad checks,

From the article:

Bad checks, under the bill, would have to be at least $500 rather than just $100. Shoplifting would have to amount to more than $1,000 rather than $500 now, and other theft would have to include at least $1,000 instead of the present $500.

They're telling Social Security recipients that there is no inflation, hence, no cost of living adjustments. But at the same time they're telling the criminals that inflation is alive and well.

And, by the way, they're selling postcards of the hanging; they're painting the passports brown.

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