A bold step

House Bill 1176 marks historic change in how Georgia handles criminals

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.

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