Originally created 01/04/06

Harsher penalties will add up



ATLANTA - Harsher penalties being proposed for sex offenders could add nearly a billion dollars to Georgia's prison costs over a decade, according to a recent study of the proposal.

The cost to the prison system will be a factor in the debate when state lawmakers will begin discussing those harsher penalties in coming weeks.

Members of both the House and the Senate who will convene Monday have drafted measures to significantly increase prison sentences for a number of sex crimes, particularly those against children younger than 14.

Offenders convicted of charges such as rape or aggravated child molestation would face at least 25 years in prison - up from the current minimum sentences of 10 years - if the measures successfully pass during the session.

According to the Department of Corrections' Office of Planning and Analysis, the prison population would rise by nearly 6,900 inmates, costing the taxpayers $932 million over 10 years if one version of the sex law changes were approved.

After 24 years, the number of added prisons beds needed would total 14,800 and cost the state an additional $4 billion, according to the analysis.

The biggest jump in prisoner numbers would be among those convicted of child molestation.

Aggravated-child-molestation offenders would face a new proposed minimum sentence of 25 years, up from the average of 5.8 years being served now.

The estimated impacts on the prison system are based on House Majority Leader Jerry Keen's first draft of the bill he plans to introduce this session and were a collaboration between the Corrections Department and the Department of Audits and Accounts.

Mr. Keen, a Republican from St. Simons Island, unveiled the initial proposal in September but has since modified it.

The changes he made would drop the correction's 10-year estimates down to about 6,000 new inmates. He decided not to make public indecency a felony or to set the threshold age at 18 rather than the current 16 for defining child molestation and enticing a child for indecent purposes.

Mr. Keen's bill will also call for lifetime monitoring of the most dangerous offenders through satellite-aided devices once they leave prison. The state would not pay for the technology under Mr. Keen's measure, which has the released convicts footing the expense themselves.

Mr. Keen was tied up in meetings at the Capitol and didn't return phone calls seeking comment.

Sen. Judson Hill, R-Marietta, plans to introduce legislation in the upper chamber that largely mirrors Mr. Keen's proposals.

"We need to be aware of the costs and the impact that any legislation we pass has on the state," Mr. Hill said. "But I believe there's a large outcry at the local, state and the national level that we can't subject our children and our families to sexual predators who statistically, unfortunately, have a high propensity to committing the crime again and again."

But the proposals' effect on the state budget is an area that should be carefully weighed, said James Stark, a clinical director who evaluates and treats sex offenders in Marietta.

"I think we're all for protecting the children. I'm more interested in stopping the abuse than the money part, but the money part of their bill would be extreme," he said. "I'm afraid it would cost us in terms of jail space, having to build new prisons, having to add on incredible numbers of prison guards and probation officers."