ATLANTA -- Gov. Roy Barnes Monday urged a new commission he appointed to come up with a plan judges can use voluntarily to gain control over Georgia's soaring prison population or he and the General Assembly will be forced to impose a solution.
"I have no problem building prisons. I showed that in the budget this year," Mr. Barnes told members of the Governor's Commission on Certainty in Sentencing, which includes judges, state lawmakers, prosecutors and other representatives of the criminal justice and corrections systems. "But I do have a problem with not knowing what we're going to need until there's a crisis."
Georgia's inmate population has been increasing at a much faster rate than the national average, even as many categories of crime have been dropping.
State prisons held 39,252 inmates at the end of last year, an increase of 7.6 percent over the previous year. During the same period nationwide, the prison population rose by only 4.8 percent.
At $47 per day per inmate, the costs of that population explosion are being felt in the Department of Corrections' budget. The DOC has grown from a $35 million operation back in 1975 to $838 million during the last fiscal year, while the percentage of the budget allotted to prisons has risen during that time from 2 percent to 6.3 percent.
"Every time we put more money into it, we're taking it away from something else," said Cobb County Superior Court Judge Robert Flournoy, the new commission's chairman.
The wide disparity of sentences being handed out to convicted criminals across Georgia is getting much of the blame for the state's lack of ability to manage inmate population growth. Mr. Barnes is looking to the commission to devise voluntary guidelines judges could use when imposing sentences in their courtrooms.
"We need to see if we can gain some predictability on how we spend our taxpayer dollars," said state Sen. Greg Hecht, D-Jonesboro, chairman of the Senate Corrections Committee and a member of the panel. "At the same time, we want to ensure swift, strong punishment."
Both Mr. Barnes and Mr. Flournoy stressed that they want judges to retain some flexibility in sentencing, thus the decision to work toward voluntary guidelines.
But the governor warned that if the commission isn't successful at the end of the 90 days he has given it to do its work, the next step would be General Assembly passage of strict sentencing laws.
"And I can tell you right now what will come of that -- something that looks more like our federal sentencing grids, a system that provides certainty and predictability, but pretty well takes discretion out of the process," Mr. Barnes said. "That's not what I want and not what I believe you want."
Members of the commission agreed to hold four meetings during the next three months to come up with recommendations for Mr. Barnes and the Legislature.
The panel will be aided in its effort by an Atlanta consulting firm, Allied Research Services Inc. The company is being paid $45,000 through a contract with the governor's office, $33,750 of which comes from a federal grant, said Joselyn Butler, a spokeswoman for Mr. Barnes.