Last year’s legislation drew heavily on recommendations from a special committee created the year before to study the issue and make recommendations for rewriting the state’s sentencing laws to emphasize rehabilitating relatively low-risk nonviolent offenders in community-based supervision programs rather than sending them to prison. In a report released last month that focused mostly on the juvenile justice system, the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform also recommended lawmakers build on those efforts.
The report says last year’s overhaul had a noticeable effect in the first five months. Rather than growing as projected, the total state prison population has remained fairly steady since June, the report says.
Department of Corrections officials said one of the biggest changes they’ve noticed has been the electronic submission of records from the court where someone is convicted, which allows the offender to be processed and moved into the prison system more quickly.
“It was a very cumbersome process,” director of probation operations Stan Cooper said of the previous system. Electronic submission “has sped the process up enormously and cut down costs and time in jail for offenders waiting to come into the prison system.”
The new legislation also put a cap on how long an offender could be held in a probation detention center, which is a minimum security facility designed to hold probationers who might have violated the terms of their probation or who require more security or supervision.
“What was happening was we had judges who were sentencing offenders to two and three and four years at a probation detention center, which they weren’t designed for,” Cooper said.
Now a stay in those facilities is capped at 180 days, which has reduced the waiting list for people in local jails waiting for a bed in a probation detention center from more than 700 people in July to about 200 now, he said.
But the implementation of last year’s legislation – coming on top of changes to the state evidence code that took effect Jan. 1 – has caused some headaches for police and prosecutors, said Leigh Patterson, Floyd County District Attorney and president of the District Attorneys’ Association of Georgia. There are new penalty provisions for certain crimes, and the elements of other crimes have changed so that some that used to be felonies are now misdemeanors. Those changes have to be taken into consideration as charges are filed and indictments written, she said.
“One of the challenges is that at prosecutors’ offices around the state people haven’t had raises in four years, there’s no new staff that’s been added, and now we have all these new duties and new code sections and a whole new evidence code to learn, on top of keeping up with increasing case loads,” Patterson said.
When considering recommendations for this year’s legislative session, the council suggested tweaks and clarifications to some of last year’s changes, as well as including new ideas.
Last year’s legislation revised penalties for drug possession by creating degrees of possession based on the weight of the drugs. The council recommends clarifying that this provision doesn’t require the state to prove that the defendant knew the exact weight of the drugs.
Probationers are put on an administrative caseload after two years, and the council’s report says only 18 percent of those unsupervised probationers are rearrested, as opposed to 60 percent of active probationers. The council recommends allowing the probation officers to focus less on administrative caseloads so they can focus on active probation supervision.
The council also recommends having probationers and parolees foot the cost for required drug screens.
As it did last year, the council recommends that lawmakers establish “mandatory minimum safety valves” for drug trafficking offenses that would allow judges to depart from mandatory minimum sentences in specific circumstances. The council also said courts should have flexibility in cases where the prosecution and defense agree to a different sentence for certain serious violent offenders and sexual offenders.
The council also recommended that several programs provided for by last year’s law be allowed to continue and said the administrators of the programs should provide a status report to the governor’s office by November. Those programs include: a program to help ease re-entry into society for long-serving offenders; an effort to eliminate double supervision for offenders who find themselves on probation and parole at the same time; and the creation of a risk assessment tool to identify people who have committed nonviolent drug and property crimes who could safely be put into a diversion program rather than going to prison.
The council recommends the creation of an ongoing oversight council to monitor the implementation of the criminal justice reforms enacted by last year’s bill and any legislation that stems from the report in the current session.