Originally created 12/19/97

Parole plan gives lawmakers judgment



ATLANTA -- The much-touted plan to end parole promoted by the General Assembly's Democratic leadership will do little more than let Georgia lawmakers determine who gets out of prison early, members of a sentencing commission said Thursday.

"We are suggesting to the public that we are going to abolish parole. The effect will be the Legislature in 1999 will decide whether to abolish it or not abolish it," said state Sen. Clay Land, R-Columbus, a member of the commission.

"I don't think it's practical to say there will be no parole for anybody," added Alex Crumbley, a former state senator and member of the group.

The panel is studying whether Georgia should create a commission to determine ranges of prison sentences for criminals, a move that could force inmates to serve 100 percent of their terms.

If parole is abolished, the sentences some criminals receive may be lighter because judges will have confidence that inmates will serve their full terms, according to the study commission's co-chairman, Athens Superior Court Judge Lawton Stephens.

Currently, state Department of Corrections officials estimate the average inmate serves closer to 30 percent of his sentence.

Gov. Zell Miller and the Democratic leadership of the General Assembly announced this week they hope to approve a proposed constitutional amendment next year to end parole. If so, Georgians would vote on the proposal next November.

However, lawmakers want the amendment to give them the authority to decide which crimes are covered under that parole ban, supporters acknowledged Thursday.

House Majority Leader Larry Walker, D-Perry, said the proposal would cost about $1.6 billion over the next decade to implement for new prisons and upkeep.

"It (the Legislature) might choose to abolish parole for one crime or for 350," said Bill Kelley, director of evaluations and computer services at the Board of Pardons and Paroles, which last week came out with its own plan to limit parole.

Mr. Land said abolishing parole for all types of crimes could cost close to $6 billion over 10 years. The means implementing the plan would cost almost as much as the Department of Corrections now spends each year housing 36,000 inmates.

Others on the panel worried that eliminating parole under the current sentencing system, which allows judges wide discretion and produces huge disparities, would create major problems.

"Should that pass under our current sentencing structure, that would be an absolute disaster," said DeKalb County District Attorney J. Tom Morgan.

The commission is expected to consider the Democrats' proposal, as well as one by Mr. Crumbley that would support the proposed constitutional amendment and allow the panel to continue studying sentencing guidelines for various crimes next year.

It is slated to recommend a proposal to the General Assembly before lawmakers open the 1998 session on Jan. 12.