Originally created 11/20/00

Halfway house plan shifts site



For the third time in roughly 12 months, the state will make a pitch to local officials for permission to build a 200-bed halfway house for soon-to-be-paroled prisoners.

The transition center, which was approved earlier this month by the planning commission, would be run by the Georgia Department of Corrections and serve inmates from the Augusta area.

But for the first time in the halfway house's yearlong history, the building site being proposed is not in the largely rural southern portion of Richmond County. Instead, corrections officials and commercial builders have asked that the center be located in the middle of the city's urban Laney-Walker district, at the intersection of Walton Way and Sixth Street.

The request will come before the Augusta Commission at its 2 p.m. meeting Tuesday on the eighth floor of the county municipal building. Several neighborhood groups are expected to turn out in opposition.

"A couple of the other locations have been more remote, and we've got some residential development not too far from this location," said Bob Austin, zoning and development administrator for the county planning commission. "But in other cities, these transitional centers have proven to be decent neighbors ... and (planning commission) members thought the overall need for Augusta to have a transitional center outweighs the downside of where it's going."

The state work-release center originally was slated to be built off Deans Bridge Road near the Breeze Hill neighborhood, but earlier this year the state canceled its agreement with the developer. That set in motion the series of requests to get the center placed in a more acceptable location - an attempt that has been futile to this point.

In March, commissioners - amid opposition from several neighborhood associations - turned down the state's request to extend bus service to Phinizy Road so the facility could be built there. One of the requirements for halfway houses for state prisoners is bus service.

Then in July, the state's request for a special exception to allow the center to be built off Old Savannah Road was denied amid uproar from nearby residents.

The proposed site downtown is currently occupied by an abandoned warehouse and is bordered by Walton Way on its north side, industrial property to the south and east, and a narrow strip of residential property with several houses to the west. The one-floor metallic building would occupy the 2.6-acre property, which spans roughly one city block.

And public transit already services the area.

The facility would house up to 200 inmates whose families are from the Augusta area and who are scheduled for parole within the next six months. The center, which is staffed 24 hours a day by a corrections officer, aims to decrease repeat offenders and is eligible only to prisoners who have a history of good behavior.

About 5 percent of inmates in the state's prison system come from the Augusta judicial circuit, and about 90 percent of those prisoners will eventually return to the area on release, the Georgia Department of Corrections reports.

"These inmates are coming to the community now anyway," said Scott Stallings, spokesman for the corrections department. "The inmates and the community are much better off if they have a transition program to go back to."

Transition center residents must have a full-time job, and 30 percent of each inmate's income goes back into the center for room and board. At night, residents attend counseling classes and many take continuing education classes, Mr. Stallings said.

The center would employ 65 people with a $1.6 million annual payroll. Proponents say it will allow inmates to make the transition back into society under the supervision of the state, rather than just being turned out with a bus ticket.

But officials acknowledge that nearby residents tend to have a different view of such centers.

"The people we have gone to, and made our wishes known to, have supported us," said Alvin Mitchell, superintendent of the Augusta Diversion Center on Georgia Highway 56. "But it has always been, `Build it somewhere else. Don't put it in my neighborhood.' We're trying to go to an area that will not be so resistant - that will see it as a plus."

Reach Heidi Coryell at (706) 823-3215.