The pairing of justice with common sense and compassion is a sound practice — one that should help keep Georgians safer from crime while also effectively managing taxpayers’ bills for this critical function of government.
In recent years, though, smart handling of criminals has been hindered by the understandable desire to throw the book of long sentences at many of them.
On the surface, that was a logical response to felons who were seemingly competing to achieve horrific new highs in gun crimes, drug-running and the like.
In the cool reflection of the passing years, criminal justice professionals, many law enforcement officials and lawmakers have come to realize that long, one-size-fits-all prison sentences did get criminals off the street, but at great and increasing expense.
Georgia’s tab for its adult and juvenile corrections system currently runs about $1.4 billion a year.
Gov. Nathan Deal, joined by many judges and legislators have been asserting for more than a year that Georgia can achieve effective public safety at much less cost.
Millions of dollars a year less. We believe their argument has merit and that the ongoing effort to achieve criminal justice improvements should continue, and result in additional reforms .
No reasonable person can argue that public safety should not be paramount.
Yet, many experts now believe that lock’em-up-and-lose-the-key may not have been the most effective way to deal with crime, either in terms of social cost to society or cost to all our wallets.
We’ll say here, for the record, that hardcore, spin-the-revolving-door, unrepentant violent felons should be locked up until they are no longer a feasible threat to society, however long that takes.
Not all those convicted of serious crimes warrant such treatment, however. In recent years, it’s been increasingly popular in public policy ranks to talk about being “smart on crime,” rather than reflexively locking offenders away without much thought.
Texas has been a leader in this reform work. The Right on Crime website of the Texas Public Policy Foundation put the challenge this way: “Conservatives are known for being tough on crime, but we must also be tough on criminal justice spending. That means demanding more cost-effective approaches that enhance public safety. A clear example is our reliance on prisons, which serve a critical role by incapacitating dangerous offenders and career criminals, but are not the solution for every type of offender. And in some instances, they have the unintended consequence of hardening nonviolent, low-risk offenders — making them a greater risk to the public than when they entered.”
Georgia took a significant first step toward revamping its criminal justice system last year with passage of legislation that, among other points, recognizes it’s cheaper to aggressively manage nonviolent offenders toward real rehabilitation than to warehouse them in what too often amount to fenced-in finishing schools for criminality.
This year, the General Assembly, urged on by the appointed Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform for Georgians, is considering new legislation that would enact the next phase of revisions.
One worthwhile change contained in the latest bill, HB 349 , would let the state’s judges do more judging.
Mandatory sentencing laws, in some cases, meant jurists were in effect handcuffed as rigid rules forced them to leave experience, prudence, discretion and, yes, mercy, locked outside the courthouse doors.
In certain instances, the bill would enable judges to “depart from the mandatory minimum sentence specified” if they conclude, among other things, that “the interests of justice will not be served by the imposition of the prescribed mandatory minimum sentence.”
Such a function is well within judges’ job description, we believe.
Other mitigating factors that could be considered at sentencing include whether defendants were ringleaders of criminal conduct or used a weapon in their crimes.
The legislation also requires judges to state “on the record” the circumstances warranting a reduction in minimum sentences and “the interests served by such departure.” That’s a good move for transparency and accountability.
It makes sense as well that the bill requires the special council to keep up with the “current best practices in the field of criminal law, reducing recidivism, lowering state expenses, and all matters relevant to maintaining an effective and efficient Code that will promote public safety and serve the best interests of Georgia’s citizens.”
In this tough economy, much is said about doing more with less. Sometimes that leads only to doing less with less. Becoming wiser about how Georgia dispenses justice may well prove an exception to that end result.
Andre Jackson, for the Editorial Board.