ATLANTA - A new commission began work Wednesday considering whether the state should set prison sentences largely without parole, eliminating what Lt. Gov. Pierre Howard called a "flawed system."
Howard, who is running for governor in 1998, has advocated sentencing guidelines - similar to those in North Carolina and Florida - which he said would help assure the public that criminals serve their full prison terms.
Current estimates are that on average, prisoners serve between 25-30 percent of their sentences in Georgia, although violent, repeat offenders are behind bars much longer.
"The people of this state are very concerned about crime. They perceive, and I agree with them, that the way we do business, the way we're sentencing prisoners, is flawed," Howard told the commission. "The main thing I want to accomplish is I want to restore the confidence (in the system) that's been lost. We have set up a flawed system."
Howard created the commission, through a Senate resolution, to consider whether the state should develop ranges of punishment that judges would have to adhere to in setting sentences. The system would essentially eliminate early release for new inmates.
Former Attorney General Michael Bowers, who also is running for governor, has advocated legislation mandating inmates serve at least 85 percent of their sentences.
In Georgia, violent, repeat offenders already face mandatory life in prison without parole under the state's "two strikes and you're in" law.
However, Ronald Wright, a sentencing expert and law professor at Wake Forest University, said the percentage of sentences served in Georgia prisons actually fell from 42 percent a few years ago to 29 percent in 1996.
Wayne Garner, commissioner of the state's 40,000-inmate prison system, said the figure may be closer to 26-28 percent.
"We are a politically driven feeder system," Garner said, noting many judges currently give hefty sentences for minor offenses because of the long-running, legislative push to get tougher on crime.
He told the commission the kind of structured sentences Howard has advocated would make it easier for the state prison system to plan for the future and give the public confidence felons will serve their terms.
However, Wright added researchers don't know whether such a system is a deterrent to crime, or whether crime has been dropping nationally specifically because of longer sentences.
Howard's commission, chaired by Athens Superior Court Judge Lawton Stephens and Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard, is supposed to expire at the end of this year.
But Wright said it will take longer to set up a sentencing guideline system if it's approved by the General Assembly during the next session, which begins in January.
In an election year, getting such a change through the Legislature will be difficult.
Currently, a felon sentenced to 20 years in prison may serve only four years.
Under a guideline system, the same felon sentenced to five years would have to serve five years.
The time served is longer, but the sentence isn't. Members of the commission fear lawmakers will be afraid to approve a system that, technically, reduces the sentence of some criminals, even if they'd serve more time behind bars.
"My concern has been trying to get this through a politically charged Legislature," Garner said. "I would be surprised if anything happens this session."