ATLANTA — Changes in Georgia laws last year that lightened the sentences for many non-violent crimes is resulting in empty jail bunks across the state, Corrections Commissioner Brian Owens told legislators Wednesday.
There was hardly any objection last year when lawmakers in this traditionally tough-on-crime state voted to relax the sentences for crimes like check forgery and simple burglary. The measure also created local “accountability courts” in which addicts and those suffering from mental illness get intensive supervision and treatment while living at home rather than prison time.
Gov. Nathan Deal, a former judge and prosecutor, championed the sentencing reform as a way to avoid the cost of ever-expanding prisons.
Owens said Wednesday that Deal’s strategy is beginning to work. Of the 37,000 beds available for inmates in county jails across Georgia, 10,000 of them are vacant, he told a joint meeting of the House and Senate appropriations committees.
“I’ve never seen before a situation where over 10,000 county jail beds are empty,” he said. “Clearly, something is happening in this state.”
County jails are the first stop for convicts headed to state prison. But the reduced flow of prisoners hasn’t yet shrunk the state’s prison population which has ballooned 33 percent in the last decade to 58,000 inmates. The law didn’t affect sentences for existing convicts.
Still, Owens predicted the need for new prisons is disappearing.
“I think the future for us looks bright,” he said.
One dark cloud on the horizon, though, is the increased proportion of violent inmates in state prisons as the non-violent are given lesser penalties. Nearly two out of three prisoners are classified as violent today, and that will grow, making the guards’ jobs even more dangerous. About a quarter of the guards quit their jobs every year.
The turnover rate is twice that in juvenile facilities, Juvenile Justice Commissioner Avery Niles told the committees.
“High turnover creates stress on the remaining staff,” he said. “In other words, turnover creates turnover.”
Deal is pushing reforms for the juvenile laws with the same reasoning as the adult reforms last year. His budget calls for transferring some funds from the Department of Juvenile Justice next year to help counties establish local programs for supervising and counseling troubled youths.
That legislation has yet to be introduced but is expected to be among the major issues before the General Assembly this year. Even though it will likely go through the judiciary committees, the lawmakers on the appropriations committees are interested because they hope it will make their job easier balancing the overall state budget.