ATLANTA -- As violent crime in many Georgia cities has been declining in recent years, the state's prison population has skyrocketed.
Georgia's prison population has increased 62.5 percent since Gov. Zell Miller took office 61/2 years ago, and if some Republicans get their way, the lock-em'-up trend could continue well into the 21st century as criminals serve longer sentences without a chance for parole.
Despite the costly leap in Georgians behind bars, state lawmakers and politicians still feel the heat from a public grown skeptical after watching felons paroled a few years into 20-year sentences.
Ronald Wright, a sentencing expert and law professor from Wake Forest University, said the percentage of sentences served in Georgia prisons fell from 42 percent in 1994 to 29 percent in 1996.
That problem is being re-debated this year as gubernatorial candidates try to win voters' confidence that they can create a more honest system.
Lt. Gov. Pierre Howard, a Democratic hopeful, wants an independent commission to draw up sentencing guidelines that would give judges ranges of punishments to mete out.
Early release would be largely eliminated, but the price would be upper limits on sentences to keep judges' orders more in line with reality.
"I think the public would rather know the truth," said Senate President Pro-tempore Sonny Perdue, D-Bonaire, a member of a new sentencing study committee.
"If these people are going to serve 28 months, let the judge set the sentence of 24 to 30 months. Don't let the judge sentence offenders to 20 years and they're out on the street in three years. That is an offense to the victim and public. That says it's a farce."
The committee of judges, sheriffs, prosecutors and legislators began meeting last month, with an eye toward election-year legislation in 1998.
The week of that inaugural meeting, Michael Bowers kicked off his Republican campaign for governor by becoming the first Georgia candidate in a generation to declare that crime - not education - was the state's paramount problem.
Many Republicans have adopted the crime platform of former Attorney General Bowers, who wants a law mandating the worst offenders serve at least 85 percent of their sentence before they can be considered for parole.
"You don't need a commission to do that. You need to keep them locked up," Bowers said. "You must keep the bad guys in jail for much longer periods of time."
Georgia's prison boom has mirrored trends in other states.
Legislatures across the country have enacted "three strikes and you're in" policies and mandatory sentences, ballooning prison populations and budgets.
A Council of State Governments report noted that in 1996, for the first time, the state budget in California included more money for corrections than higher education.
In Georgia, the 1990s began with a "death on drugs" campaign that brought tougher penalties for drug offenders. Then Georgia voters approved a "two strikes" policy that mandates life without parole for violent repeat felons, such as murderers and rapists.
When Miller took office, he continued a prison building project started by his predecessor, Joe Frank Harris, and ended special early paroles that were being used to prevent illegal overcrowding.
By the time this year's construction is completed, 5,364 beds will have been added to the system under Miller's watch, at a cost of $51.9 million.
During those years, the prison population grew from 22,338 to 36,318 as of June 13, according to Department of Corrections records.
On average, it costs the state $17,440 a year to house an inmate, so Georgia's prison budget has risen dramatically as well.
The type of criminals entering the system has changed slightly since 1991. More entering inmates in 1996 were classified as having been convicted of violent offenses, property crimes, drug possession and sex offenses, department records show. Fewer were classified as drug peddlers and drunk drivers.
The population boom is due largely to a spike in public fear over violent crime, and the corresponding reaction by lawmakers, judges, district attorneys and bureaucrats.
"There has been a strong shift to the right in the judiciary that has been prosecuting and sentencing people," said Georgia Corrections Commissioner Wayne Garner. "We have in this country, whether we want to admit it or not, a politically driven feeder system for prisons. Judges and district attorneys have been elected or not elected based on their toughness on crime."
Garner, also a former parole board chairman, noted that state boards have become quicker to revoke the parole of felons, sending them back to prison if they misbehave on parole.
The commissioner thinks the prison population is starting to level off as crime falls, violent offenders stay put behind bars and more Georgians convicted of minor offenses get alternative sentences such as probation.
He wants sentencing guidelines because they would make the size of the prison population and budget more predictable.
But Bowers fears a sentencing commission would mean lighter sentences. A commission shouldn't be determining sentences, he said, because the members are not accountable to the public through elections.
To Bowers, a legal curb on the parole board's authority to release felons convicted of murder, aggravated assault, burglary, robbery, drug sales and sex offenses makes more sense.
The former attorney general argues the prison population is largely made up of violent recidivists. "Bad guys locked up can't commit new crimes on the street," he added.
When Republicans called for the abolition of parole, state officials estimated it would take 20 new prisons per year to hold all the incoming inmates. The price tag for construction alone after four years would be $4.5 billion.
Garner predicted that including drug sellers in mandatory no-parole laws would force the state to cut funding in other areas.
"If you're going to make them serve 85 or 100 percent of the sentences we're handing down now for penny-ante drug crimes, you have to ask yourself, `do you want to pay the freight for those kind of crimes for long sentences?"' Garner said.
"You can't give a 20-year sentence for possession of half a pound of marijuana and expect the taxpayers to pay for 85 or 100 percent of that sentence. That's going to be a chore. How are you going to defend funding corrections in this state to the tune of cutting into education and everything else?
"I think you need a sentencing commission. If we're going to have them serve 100 percent or 85 percent, the sentences have to be realistic."
The commissioner added that under the Republicans' 85 percent proposal, some criminals might serve less time. The state's "two strikes" policy mandates that offenders who commit one of seven serious crimes serve their full sentence without parole now.
"I would like to take a stick and bang them on the head and say, `What are you thinking?' If you are using the 85 percent, you're reducing the time served."
January 1991 -- 22,338
January 1993 -- 24,949
January 1995 -- 33,227
January 1997 -- 34,865
June 1997 -- 36,318
Releases from prison
1991 -- 18,175
1993 -- 14,497
1995 -- 15,777
1996 -- 16,365
Source: Georgia Department of Corrections
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