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.
FEWER TO PRISON
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.”
OUT EARLY AND TRAINED NOT TO RETURN
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.
LEGISLATION IS SUBJECT TO CHANGE
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.