A bold step

House Bill 1176 marks historic change in how Georgia handles criminals

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This year’s Georgia legislative session didn’t make a lot of noise outside of Atlanta. But its echoes will be heard for decades to come.

That would be true if lawmakers had done nothing but pass House Bill 1176.

The new law profoundly changes how criminals will be handled in Georgia. In short, it attempts to reserve prison for only violent offenders and the worst property and drug criminals.

The rest of the brood will be funneled to a presumably increasing number of “drug and accountability” courts that feature stiff probation requirements and souped-up monitoring.

This is landmark legislation, folks. It’s a historic change in approach to handling public safety and its costs.

Officials hope the payoff is twofold: 1) the state will avoid millions of dollars in prison construction and inmate costs; and 2) nonviolent offenders will be less likely to re-offend or even become violent, as often happens when they are shipped off to prison to mingle with the inveterate pros.

Of course, the gamble is that community-based supervision of low-level offenders – probation, basically – will prove officials right.

Attorney General Sam Olens, who supports the law, acknowledges the $10 million in the package for new and expanded community-based programs isn’t enough.

“No,” he told us. “But it’s a great first step.”

That first step has actually been a couple years in the making.

The 2011 Georgia General Assembly passed House Bill 265, which created the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform for Georgians, a group of lawmakers and criminal justice experts that studied the state’s system in 2011.

The council concluded that a strengthened probation and parole system could reduce repeat offenses (recidivism), and that reduced prison costs could help fund it all.

The council saw what other state officials apparently had seen coming: With the state’s prison population swelling to over 56,000 – more than doubling in 20 years – and the inmate count projected to bulge another 8 percent by 2016, something has to be done. Absent a change in course, the state would soon have to spend another $264 million on prison expansion.

Further, the criminal justice council discovered that prisons have been bursting at the seams even as crime rates have dropped by about 20 percent over the past decade. Even with a growing state population, the total number of violent crimes reported in Georgia in 2009 was largely unchanged from 1999.

The problem seems to be that lower-level drug and property criminals have been put in prison at higher rates for longer periods. The criminal justice council’s report last November says drug and property offenders account for nearly 60 percent of all prison admissions.

“For drug and property crimes,” the report says, “the average length of stay behind bars more than tripled between 1990 and 2010.”

Experts also insist that such offenders do better – i.e., avoid repeat crimes and get their lives straightened out – in intense community-based “drug and accountability” courts. The Augusta Judicial Circuit has one that is receiving high marks.

“We’re past the point of ‘do these revisions work,’ and we’re appropriately at the point of how best to implement them in our state,” Olens said.

In Cobb County, where Olens was once chairman of the Board of Commissioners, drug and alcohol courts were utilized in both the adult and juvenile systems. In both, he said, “You’d see the family members crying, because they had gotten back their child.” The approach “was bringing families back together.”

In drug courts and alcohol courts, he said, “I’ve only seen positive changes.”

The truth is, we’ve always underdone prevention and rehabilitation. We’ve simply relied too much on throwing the book at criminals, violent and nonviolent alike. That makes little sense with regard to drug addicts, for instance – and Georgia incarcerates 3,200 users a year, not even counting the sellers.

Drug rehab does make more logical sense for such folks.

And while we absolutely abhor burglars and thieves, experts are probably right that they – along with their drug-addicted colleagues – only get worse with time in prison alongside more hardened crooks.

Still, even though this law treats more serious burglars more harshly, this very profound change in the state’s criminal justice system is more than a little unnerving. A lot has to go right for this to work, and for it not to simply give nonviolent offenders a get-out-of-jail-free card.

This new law is a bold step toward a more proactive and cost-effective criminal justice system. But we’ve seen such steps before – in juvenile corrections, for instance, where the promise of community-based programs has been broken. Today, one insider told us, “we basically have nothing for any but the most violent offenders in juvenile court.”

When push comes to shove, lawmakers are loath to commit the kind of money such programs require.

This time, the stakes are exponentially higher.

Comments (18) Add comment
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Riverman1
83470
Points
Riverman1 04/09/12 - 04:51 am
7
0
The misguided "war on drugs"

The misguided "war on drugs" has not decreased drug use at all. We have more people imprisoned than any country in the world. Associated crimes have risen as we spend hundreds of millions incarcerating people. We spend billions, yes, billions, on drug law enforcement that has been totally ineffective. As I've been saying, it's time to decriminalize drugs and try something else.

Augusta's Drug Court is one way to decriminalize through a politically expedient backdoor way. Let's hope this new approach by the state works to get people off drugs and back to productive lives.

TParty
6003
Points
TParty 04/09/12 - 07:43 am
5
0
I'll agree with Riverman- war

I'll agree with Riverman- war on drugs has failed miserably.

This article summed it well with "the criminal justice council discovered that prisons have been bursting at the seams even as crime rates have dropped by about 20 percent over the past decade."

This a is a great step for numerous reasons.

SteveSwimmer
225
Points
SteveSwimmer 04/09/12 - 08:43 am
2
0
"courts that feature stiff

"courts that feature stiff probation requirements and souped-up monitoring"

This is the part that will keep our prisons and jails full.

Today, a huge percentage of those incarcerated are in for probation violations. And, now we will stiffen rules that already as stiff as can be.

Expect not to enjoy much savings with this plan.

Expect a massive increase in incarcerated probation violators to keep the prison/industrialist fat.

mangum
12
Points
mangum 04/09/12 - 09:00 am
0
0
agree mostly, however we have

agree mostly, however we have folks locked up in prison for what is deemed "accessory charges" and have very stiff sentences, I think each case needs to reviewed and the sentences need to match the crime. Like how do you give someone who has repeatly sold any amounts of drugs probation. this gives way to the other crimes that are committed to get the cash to fund the drug habit, such as selling of food stamps to get drug money , ( and in no way have I included everybody, ) and yes it is a crime maybe a misdemmeaner, but it leads to other issues . How many robberie in the augusta area are drug related , i would venture to say about 95% and i dont care how well off you are or what circle your family is in, you are not exempt from the total drug problem,

dichotomy
32714
Points
dichotomy 04/09/12 - 12:11 pm
5
0
Unfortunately, this law is

Unfortunately, this law is not just about a few pot smokers. It covers thieves. It covers shoplifters. And it covers drug users who are stealing to support their "non-criminal" habits. It means that thieves who already have LITTLE fear of the criminal justice system will now have NO fear of the criminal justice system. Why should they. It's now almost impossible to get locked up.

This is nothing more than total capitulation to thieves and burglars. This is "let the buinesses, the consumers, and the homeowners and their insurance companies pay the bill for shoplifters and thieves while we pacify the cry for justice with some useless rehab program".

We have declared "open season" on retail stores with a "no jail" policy for anything under $1000. How many already tempted low lifes do you think will weigh the odds and go for it? Hey, those $200 tennis shoes.....those $75 jeans........that $600 flat screen......there is no jail time for trying. If you get out the door with them you are good to go and if you get caught, no problem since you are not going to jail. Retailers need to adopt the "stand your ground" law and place armed guards at the door to "protect their property". If the courts won't jail them I say it's just another good reason to shoot them.

Stand your ground people. The number of thieves and burglars on the street is going to get a lot bigger. For you drug user supporting liberals, I sure hope we don't kill any of them while they are stealing to buy their drugs.

Incarcerating criminals is ONE function that government is actually supposed to do and that I am willing to pay for. In fact, there is plenty of money in other "give away" programs that pay for the spawning and maintenance of these little criminals to divert to pay for their incarceration. We don't need huge air conditioned prisons with cable TV and weight lifting rooms to do it. It can be done very cheaply. And you can even get a little work out of the little scumbags while they are there. Just ask Joe Arpaio.

Riverman1
83470
Points
Riverman1 04/09/12 - 10:08 am
1
0
Dichotomy, I understand your

Dichotomy, I understand your frustration and I'm with you on standing your ground. If anyone is committing a crime, I don't care whether he's on drugs or not, shoot if you have to and lock him up if it gets that far. But there's a far greater issue here. We are out of money with the prisons. There are too many in there, yet crime is not decreasing. Those with simple drug crimes should be managed in other ways with the goal to get them off drugs and prevent the crimes that go with it.

As far as the prisons, there are misconceptions. I heard the head of Georgia state prisons on a local radio show and he answered many questions. I learned a lot. There is NO airconditioning in state prisons. They have only basic TV in a dayroom... no cable. They don't have weight lifting facilities. They have only basic medical care.

So even with those stern prison conditions we are running out of money. We could do a lot more with education programs to prevent drug use and treatment with the billions we currently spit in the wind trying to lock people up for drug use. Bottom line, we have to try something else.

allhans
23615
Points
allhans 04/09/12 - 10:39 am
2
0
More probation

More probation officers...will that work. Some don't seem to have a lot of concern about "their" probationers.
A man I know well in Columbia County has stolen and scammed for drugs since he was 13-14 years old. He is now 51 and the law don't want him. He just keeps doing his thing. His parents have spent thousnads upon thousands of dollars for rehab treatments...and he laughs.

TParty
6003
Points
TParty 04/09/12 - 11:33 am
0
0
I'll just copy and paste this

I'll just copy and paste this again for you riverman- in case you decide to edit your part about crime increasing.

"the criminal justice council discovered that prisons have been bursting at the seams even as crime rates have dropped by about 20 percent over the past decade."

Riverman1
83470
Points
Riverman1 04/09/12 - 11:36 am
2
0
TP, thanks. That's a good

TP, thanks. That's a good enough correction for me. I felt maybe I was off with that as I posted it. Ya know that feeling? Thanks again.

madgerman
236
Points
madgerman 04/09/12 - 01:58 pm
0
0
Why are prisons built so
Unpublished

Why are prisons built so sturdy if the majority of prisoners in for social problems? It would appear that maybe they need two or three different styles of prison. Maybe we should be leasing a holiday Inn and erecting barbed wire for those who are in for a few months for drug posession and shoplifting. Lets face it we could probably but all the Holiday Inns in Georgia for the same amount we pay for a single prison. And wasn't there a special report recently about the "outsopurced" probation system? Seems they were more for making oodles of money at the expense of parolee rehabilitation. I would be a fan of parole if they system was run and staffed by the state. What I really love is the idea that we need more education. I am in my mid sixties and have heard about the problems with drugs since I was 6 years old. Just who in this country dosen't understand that drugs are dangerous and how much more tax payer education (via companies owned by legislator family members) is needed to get that point across?

deadline
0
Points
deadline 04/09/12 - 02:13 pm
1
1
"It means that thieves who

"It means that thieves who already have LITTLE fear of the criminal justice system will now have NO fear of the criminal justice system." Agree with this. Many of these low lifes view prison as a fraternity!

We should take a page out of Southeast Asia's handbook and start doling out some whippings and lashings.

socks99
250
Points
socks99 04/09/12 - 03:29 pm
0
0
One wonders how sincere ACES

One wonders how sincere ACES really is considering the fact that you wholeheartedly supported a smoking ban that would have forced the police and courts to begin punishing those who smoke tobacco? Haven't quite had ENOUGH of the war on drugs? Or, does the right hand not know what the left is up to?

***

GA's jails, courts, and its legislators all deserve a good bit of blame for the horrible situation that has developed. Grandstanding legislators have sponsored and passed all sorts of "zero tolerance" and "3 strikes and you are out" rules; federal rules, as well, have further impinged on judicial discretion. Right now, in GA, NO indigent defendant is afforded a free lawyer! They are all made to pay into a fund for this "right" that is guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution! They are told that if they do NOT pay, then their sentences will be harsher. Right now in GA, there are many, many overworked and underpaid public defenders who are willing to "work with" prosecutors if it advances their personal interests. Combine these violations of judicial protections, and you end-up with incarceration rates unmatched in the free or un-free world.

Finally, while supervised release might be appropriate in many cases, the expenses that are put upon defendants, again, probably violate judicial tenets. The costs of probation, parole, monitoring, etc., are often paid to for-profit private contractors who themselves are in bed with judges and prosecutors. ACES Op-Ed today does not begin to understand the obvious flaws in GA's system, and would seem to be a cynical bid to pretend you've done your homework. Many supposedly honorable judges, prosecutors and lawyers have surrendered their professional integrity and looked the other way in exchange for a title and a salary; what GA has, today, is a lot like the old chain gangs that were used as free labor. Today's system promises freedom in exchange for monthly payments.

Jane18
12332
Points
Jane18 04/09/12 - 04:32 pm
0
0
This article is almost

This article is almost laughable, I cannot believe what I have read. Everyday, our government, in one way or another, is getting more ignorant and more stupid..........................Good comment dichotomy!

burninater
9580
Points
burninater 04/09/12 - 05:27 pm
1
0
dichotomy, jane18, is it

dichotomy, jane18, is it sensible to spend more money punishing petty crime than the petty crime costs in the first place? It's like paying for a home security system to protect a house with less than $1000 worth of stuff in it, or putting collision insurance on a 25 yr-old Ford Taurus. At some point you've got to let dollars and cents override the sense of outrage.

Jose3
0
Points
Jose3 04/09/12 - 07:33 pm
0
0
Looks like the Taliban

Looks like the Taliban Christian leadership of Georgia is busy looking for ways to fill the slave labor gap left by chasing undocumented workers out of the State.

It turns out that Georgia won the Civil War and slavery is back in fashion.

Jose3
0
Points
Jose3 04/09/12 - 07:38 pm
0
0
To protest the laws against

To protest the laws against marijuana, I purchased 250,000 non-hybrid tobacco seeds for about $50 and they are sprouting now. I plan on giving the seedlings away to cigarette smokers so they'll stop paying tobacco taxes to the government. My reasoning is big tobacco will stop lobbying to keep marijuana illegal if there is a movement to give away tobacco plants. It is an easy sell to smoker since they already know the chemicals added to tobacco are more harmful than the tobacco itself.

copperhead
1035
Points
copperhead 04/09/12 - 08:11 pm
0
2
Some folks don't have respect

Some folks don't have respect for ANY of our laws.

scoopdedoop64
2366
Points
scoopdedoop64 04/09/12 - 09:21 pm
0
0
an eye for any eye and a

an eye for any eye and a tooth for a tooth.

Pu239
284
Points
Pu239 04/09/12 - 09:30 pm
0
0
So burninater... can we just
Unpublished

So burninater... can we just have all the petty crimes commited at your house and against your family? You know...steal your electronics and power tools? Break into your cars? Please keep replacing your things....after all they are just things right?

Bizkit
31244
Points
Bizkit 04/10/12 - 06:35 pm
0
0
Why should anyone be in

Why should anyone be in prison for breaking a federal law when we have millions of illegal immigrants from Mexico who have done the same with no penalty. Only hardened violent criminals should be in prison, and others should basically be indentured servants to repay their debt to society-so no cost. In the process maybe find a trade, an education, or some employment. Time to break the cycle and indoctrinate the people back into society rather than treat them as outcasts. Likely many of us are descended from indentured servants from England during the founding of this country and Georgia. They finally worked to their freedom-now we have prisons run by gangs and a criminal subculture. Sad because a problem is too large (illegal immigration), or a losing battle (the drug war), or too big to fail, we just give up and acquiesce to the problem (well we just have to absorb the illegals, lets just legalize it all, let the taxpayer bail out this incompetent companies that blundered). I do think you can decriminalize pot to modest fines at most and no record.

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