The General Assembly this winter will debate a shift in emphasis toward alternatives to prison time for nonviolent offenders, as suggested by a special council appointed last year to study the state’s prison population and criminal code. The effect of its recommendations would be to send fewer people to jail for property and drug crimes and boost alternative punishments.Among the recommendations that will be taken up in the Peach State legislature:
That shift has the firm backing of Gov. Nathan Deal, who said it is time for Georgia to follow the lead of Texas, South Carolina and other Southern states and take a more effective approach to punishment.
He said Georgia, which now spends more than $1 billion a year on state prisons and has seen its inmate population double in the past 20 years, simply cannot afford to keep the current sentencing regime.
“We’re at a point in time where the necessity for doing something has gotten so big that to turn our head and pretend the problem does not exist is not responsible government,” Deal said in an interview.
“If we don’t make some changes, we’ll see an ever-increasing percentage of our state budget having to be allocated to our correction system. That takes away funding for things like education and other areas where many think the money is better spent.”
Changes to the criminal code proved to be more controversial among those on the special council, especially when it came to drug offenses. But the group reached consensus on some changes, including:More controversial in Georgia has been a measure Texas approved in 2003 mandating probation on the first offense for the lowest level drug offenses (in Texas' case, possession of less than a gram of a controlled substance, which is a state jail felony). A prosecutor on the panel argued that "To give only probation for having small quantities of illegal drugs in effect 'decriminalizes drug possession.'" This view fails to recognize that probation for many offenders can be a more difficult punishment than incarceration, particularly if it requires them to change their lifestyle. Jail or prison time can be waited out; fighting addiction, earning a living, providing for a family, etc. ... those things are a lot harder than prison for many offenders, particularly addicts. Or at least that's the premise on which Texas' 2003, '05, and '07 probation reforms were based.
- Increasing the threshold that makes a theft a felony to $1,500 -- up from the current $500 which was established in 1982 -- and increasing the felony threshold of theft by shoplifting from $300 to $750.
- Adjusting sentencing ranges for burglaries, with more serious punishment reserved for break-ins of homes and less severe sentences for burglaries of unoccupied structures, such as tool sheds, barns and other buildings.
- Giving judges a “safety value” that would allow them, after making certain findings, to depart from mandatory sentences in the current law for drug trafficking.
As a southerner (it ain't "Grits" for nothing), I'm glad to see this happening in the South: Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi, and now Georgia (at least) have witnessed conservative champions rise up to denounce mass incarceration as too costly and unnecessary.
The Texas Legislature, of course, as Grits readers know, this year regrettably departed from its reformist path, allowing our prisons to fill up again (they're projected to be beyond capacity by 2013) and reducing their funding without doing much to reduce the numbers of prisoners. Next session, for a variety of reasons, I doubt it will be nearly so easy to punt on these questions, forcing Texas to once again confront the economic costs of its tuff-on-crime self image and seek ways to reduce the expense. The only other option is to raise taxes to build more prisons, creating a tension between fiscal conservatives and the tuff-on-crime crowd, particularly prosecutors, whose political stance invariably is that, when it comes to their own budgets and prisons, money should be no object (and you're "soft on crime" if you say otherwise). By 2013, with prison health over budget, line-staff employment churning, and more prisoners entering TDCJ by the day, that tension will force Texas to either double down on de-incarceration reforms, following our southern brethren, or else tax-and-spend is the only way out of the mess we're in, which is exactly the reason Georgia is acting now.
RELATED: Via Sentencing Law & Policy, from The Crime Report, "Getting prison numbers down for good." From the Kansas City Star, "Tougher sentences boost cost of justice in Kansas." And from The Oregonian, "Bring on the debate on corrections."