Experts say repeated studies have shown they don’t work, and so now a high-level commission is considering moving Georgia toward what experts say does work in getting troublemakers onto the path of lifelong, law-abiding citizenship: rehabilitation.
The thinking about corrections has swung back and forth over the past 200 years between “lock ’em up” and “teach them to become contributing members of society.” Georgia triggered a previous swing toward rehabilitation and more humane treatment of adult inmates with the 1932 publication of the scathing autobiography I Am a Fugitive From the Georgia Chain Gang!
The state was also on the leading edge of the latest swing toward get-tough thinking when then-Gov. Zell Miller instituted boot camps in the early 1990s to instill the discipline he had gained in the Marine Corps. He also pushed for the state’s “two strikes and you’re out” law, which mandated life sentences for adults convicted of repeat felonies.
Many credit the increased incarceration with the 20-year decline in the crime rate.
Saving state money
Texas sparked the latest swing toward rehabilitation in 2007. A funding and administration crisis led conservatives in government there to consider rehabilitation ideas that liberals had been espousing for years, according to Jeanette Moll, a policy analyst at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.
“There was a huge amount of frustration with the Legislature about the state facilities,” she said.
Leaders decided to use the state facilities less and send that money instead to the counties for supervision and counseling programs in their own communities. Counties could choose their own program as long as they could point to studies showing it worked.
A critical component is assessing each child’s risk of committing a new offense. Only those judged to be on a path of lifetime crime are locked up in state facilities. That means that two kids involved in the same incident could wind up with very different sentences.
As critical as that initial assessment is in ensuring that the right offenders wind up behind bars and the less-dangerous ones don’t, the availability of a range of social services in the communities is vital, according to Jane A. King, the chief juvenile probation officer for Randall County, Texas.
King said that in cities such as Amarillo, where she works, much of the social services infrastructure was already in place. Smaller, more rural counties still aren’t equipped and don’t have the resources.
In Georgia, county leaders are less eager. They see how local school boards struggle with state mandates and reduced state funding, and they wonder whether the state would send them adequate resources.
“While we certainly understand the reason for wanting to do this and the need to change the juvenile-justice system to have better outcomes, it is a bit scary for the counties,” said Debra Nesbit, a policy analyst for the Association County Commissioners of Georgia. “... There are a lot of areas of the state that have no infrastructure.”
She points to the state’s closing of its mental hospitals in recent years. The plan was to save money and get better outcomes by treating those patients while they lived in their communities, but many communities didn’t have adequate personnel for doing that, she said.
Phasing the plan in
A panel of experts is weighing some of these considerations as it decides what to recommend to Georgia legislators when they convene in January. Most observers expect it will repeat what it did last year in accepting the majority of suggestions from consultants with the Washington-based Pew Center on the States, which resulted in unanimous passage of a sentencing reform bill for adults.
In an effort to save taxpayers money by reducing prison rolls, the General Assembly relaxed sentences for minor instances of burglary and forgery and steered addicts to intensive supervision while living at home. For juveniles, the consultants began their first presentation to the panel by praising what Texas has done.
King recommends that Georgia not rush.
“You’re going to have to inventory (counties’ services) because to get a good program up and running is not an easy thing,” she said, setting a minimum of two years. “They need to get adequate planning time and adequate resources.”