ATLANTA -- While Republican legislators are trying to stiffen sentencing laws, a new report suggests Georgians already are twice as likely to wind up behind bars as their counterparts across the country.
Georgians have a 1-in-10 chance of going to prison in their lifetimes, according to a report by the Board of Pardons and Paroles Office of Criminal Justice Research and Applied Research Services Inc., of Atlanta. The national average is one in 20.
The report comes out a little more than a year after the Board of Pardons and Paroles mandated inmates convicted of 20 major crimes serve at least 90 percent of their sentences before being eligible for release.
Republican lawmakers have failed at least twice this session to get Democrats to make that "truth-in-sentencing" rule part of state statute books.
Once there, they insist, legislators would be under greater pressure to fund the impact of the rule, which parole officials have put at $2.4 billion during the next decade for building and operating new prisons.
Pardons and Paroles officials say the report shows more focus should be placed on stopping the cycle of crime and punishment in Georgia.
"Something has got to change. For all of this talk of structured sentencing, maybe the real focus in Georgia should be on structured parenting, structured childhoods, structured education and structured lives," said Walter Ray, chairman of the Board of Pardons and Paroles.
The report said males in Georgia stand a 17.8 percent chance of winding up in state prison in their lifetime, and black males 38.5 percent.
The national averages are 9 percent and 28.5 percent, respectively.
The report states Georgia's focus on prison construction coupled with the relatively few funds for alternatives to incarceration have contributed to the greater probability of going to prison.
"There are people in our prisons today who should stay there and never leave," said Mike Light, director of the board's research office. "Still, for nonviolent offenders, we need a greater range of alternatives before prison."
Mr. Light said Georgia ranks next to last among 16 Southeastern states in community corrections spending per offender.
"At least 75 percent of all crime is somehow drug- or alcohol-related," Mr. Light said. "But any probation or parole officer can tell you that it can take up to a month to get a substance abuser into public treatment."
State Rep. Ben Allen, D-Augusta, a member of the House Judiciary Committee, said violent criminals need to be locked up. But he agreed the state should direct more resources toward keeping Georgians out of prison.
"We have placed all of our emphasis on warehousing people who have run afoul of the law," Mr. Allen said. "I don't look for it to get better because we have new prisons coming on line all the time.
"If a judge knows there is space in jails, he'll say, `jail time.' We need to shift our emphasis to rehabilitation, but when we do the polls, the public seems to want more prisons built."
However, Sen. Clay Land, R-Columbus, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and sponsor of the Republicans' "truth-in-sentencing" amendments, said it appears Democrats and the board are trying to find a way out of their commitment for the 90 percent rule.
"It seems like to me there is some backing off truth in sentencing," Mr. Land said.
"When you say, `We're tougher than other states,' that doesn't answer the question about whether we have truth in sentencing. It looks to me like the election has come and gone, and now we don't want to talk about it. This is a matter of solid public policy that most people want."
Mr. Light said the report has nothing to do with the board's commitment to truth in sentencing.
"We'll keep the 90 percent rule as long as they keep funding $1 billion a year for prisons," he said.
James Salzer is based in Atlanta and can be reached at (404) 589-8424 or email@example.com.