Originally created 12/10/97

Prison terms to be enforced



ATLANTA -- Burglars, robbers, carjackers, stalkers and child molesters are among the criminals who will have to serve at least 90 percent of their prison terms under new rules approved Tuesday by Georgia's parole board.

Keeping those felons in prison longer will cost at least $2.4 billion during the next decade, and members of the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles acknowledge their new guidelines won't work if the General Assembly can't come up with the money.

"If we can't do it, we just can't do it," said board Chairman Walter Ray, a former state senator. "The General Assembly has got to provide the money."

State officials say the Department of Corrections will need at least 20 new prisons to implement the guidelines over the next 10 years.

However, House Appropriations Chairman Terry Coleman, D-Eastman, said legislators know the public wants lawbreakers to serve more time.

"The public's perception is that violent offenders may not be spending enough time behind bars. If the public feels that way, we're going to do what it takes to make the system work," Mr. Coleman said.

Mr. Ray and other board members see the new guidelines as a way to restore confidence in a system that is harshly criticized every time an inmate is released and then commits another crime.

A panel of lawmakers, judges, district attorneys and policemen has been studying sentencing guidelines - limiting or eliminating parole - for months.

Legislative leaders also have been discussing the issue with Gov. Zell Miller as they prepare for the General Assembly session in January.

"This is certainly moving in the right direction," Mr. Miller said of the parole board's plan. "But I fully expect the debate to continue."

Candidates for state office in 1998 have joined the chorus for change, promising laws to lengthen the time criminals spend behind bars.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Guy Millner on Tuesday unveiled a platform in which he called for legislation to eliminate the parole board and to force criminals to serve 100 percent of their sentences. Mr. Millner estimated his plan would cost $1.2 billion in new prison beds over three years.

"This has not just been an off-the-cuff response," said Betty Cook, a member of the parole board. "This is not purely about crime. This is about violence in our community. We cannot tolerate the violence."

Several law enforcement officials who attended Tuesday's board announcement expressed support for the new guidelines.

"I'm real proud of this," said Richmond County Sheriff Charles Webster. "I think it's something that's going to help law enforcement. It's going to help the citizens. Maybe crime will decrease if a criminal knows he's going to spend 90 percent of his sentence in prison."

"I think it's one of the most significant advances in public safety in my 23 years of law enforcement," said Roswell Police Chief Ed Williams.

The state's "two-strikes" law already sets a penalty of life without parole for those convicted a second time of such crimes as murder, armed robbery, kidnapping and rape. That law would not be affected by the 90 percent rule.

The new guidelines will apply to those convicted beginning Jan. 1 of crimes such as attempted rape, voluntary manslaughter, aggravated battery or assault of a policeman or citizen, child molestation, carjacking, robbery, cruelty to children, feticide, incest, statutory rape, criminal attempt to murder, vehicular homicide, aggravated stalking and home burglary.

Such crimes account for about 25 percent of the prisoners admitted annually to the state's 36,000-inmate system, according to Bill Kelly, a board official.

Of the crimes covered, the current average percent of sentences inmates serve ranges from 49 percent for burglary to 100 percent for bus hijacking and 90 percent for aggravated stalking.

The guidelines probably will not start costing the state money until late 1999 or 2000. However, the board estimates by mid-2007 the prison population will hit 64,452.

Besides the problem of raising money, staffing the new prisons may be difficult. The state Department of Corrections, like prison departments across the country, is having trouble recruiting guards, a recent audit showed. Starting pay in Georgia is $19,242 a year.