Georgia faces a billion-dollar budget deficit. In response, the General Assembly must come up with measures to alleviate the burden placed on Peach State taxpayers. One of the areas ripe for reform – at least if we take seriously recent hints by Gov. Nathan Deal and House Speaker David Ralston – is the state’s criminal justice system.
In discussing this problem recently with Walter Jones of the Morris News Service, Ralston stated that Georgians are “spending a huge amount of money locking people up that have drug problems.” He added, “At some point the people of Georgia have a right to ask if that’s an appropriate way to spend their tax dollars.”
A few days later, the new Governor told legislators Georgia would not tolerate violent offenders, but that opportunities should be afforded to those “who want to change their lives.” He explained that emphasis should be placed on rehabilitation rather than incarceration, noting that addiction is a severe drain on the state’s budget.
Georgia can no longer afford to simply lock up non-violent offenders; the approach favored to this point. The state spends more than $1 billion annually to keep some 53,000 prisoners behind bars. Moreover, as former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich pointed out last March in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, of the 20,000 prisoners released each year, nearly two-thirds will find themselves back in jail within three years. Looking at such a record of failure, Gingrich asked, “if two-thirds of public school students dropped out, or two-thirds of all bridges collapsed within three years, would citizens tolerate it?”
It is not as if solutions are lacking. For example, even as the recidivism rate in Georgia’s prisons remains extraordinarily high, the state’s drug courts have been demonstrably successful in keeping non-violent offenders from coming back – only 12 percent have found their way back into the system, according to commentary written by Marc Levin for the Georgia Public Policy Foundation. Unfortunately, funding for this proven program fell to the axe as appropriators and Gov. Sonny Perdue dealt with severe revenue shortfalls.
“Right on Crime,” a project of the Texas Public Policy Foundation supported by several familiar names in the conservative movement, including Gingrich, has proposed outside-the-box ideas to reduce both crime and its related burdens on taxpayers.
The Lone Star State already has implemented many of these reforms in its criminal justice system, including increased funding for drug treatment programs; at the same time, saving taxpayers over $2 billion by not having to build new prisons. Texas also has reduced the number of institutionalized youth by nearly 53 percent. Violent and property crime in the state has fallen significantly, and the incarceration rate has dropped by more than four percent; even as the national average continues to increase.
Closer to home, just this past year South Carolina enacted reforms that move low-risk, non-violent offenders from jail to rehabilitation programs. As then-Governor Mark Sanford noted when he signed the reforms into law, they are expected to save taxpayers $350 million. These reforms do not signify a weakness in dealing with criminals; rather they allow the judicial system to get “smart on crime.”
Deal’s new administration has a unique opportunity to form a consensus with legislative leaders on this crucial public policy issue. Starting a dialogue is important; but our leaders must build on the discussions by looking at the successes from other states, considering what is already working here at home, and move from rhetoric to real action. Years of political squabbling over funding, and moves by the legislature to prove its members are “tough on crime,” have left our state at the back of the pack on implementing real criminal justice reforms. It’s time we move to the front of the class; and save taxpayers money at the same time.
- by Bob Barr, The Barr Code