When money gets tight, priorities change. Beliefs that were once assumed to be not merely true but downright unassailable are suddenly re-examined in a new light and found to be faulty.
Consider, for example, the assumption that the best way to fight crime is to throw as many people as possible into prison for as long as possible. Thanks to that philosophy, the number of people in Georgia prisons has more than doubled in the last 20 years, rising twice as fast as the state population. By the end of 2007, Georgia had the fourth highest rate of incarceration in a nation with an incarceration rate four times the international average.
A lot of the people we’ve thrown into prison could have been punished a lot more cheaply, a lot more humanely, and a lot more effectively. In fact, data suggest that in some cases, throwing people into prison makes them more likely to become repeat offenders. But for years, no one in political power dared to raise such questions, out of fear of being labeled soft on crime. The theory was arrest ‘em, convict ‘em, throw ‘em into prison and forget about ‘em.
That has begun to change. In his inaugural address back in January, Gov. Nathan Deal noted that “one out of every 13 Georgia residents is under some form of correctional control” and questioned whether that was financially sustainable. While violent and repeat offenders should continue to face prison, Deal said, it was time to reassess how we handle first-time offenders and those convicted of drug possession and other lesser crimes.
With the support of Deal and other state leaders, the General Assembly created the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform, asking its members to suggest changes to state criminal law and its corrections system in order to cut costs to taxpayers. The group’s report is now out, and its recommendations on the whole are wise, fact-based and well-thought-out.
The tricky part will be translating wise recommendations into wise legislation.
As the report points out, “drug and property offenders represent almost 60 percent of all [prison] admissions. Importantly, many of these offenders are identified as lower-risk. In 2010, Georgia courts sent more than 5,000 lower-risk drug and property offenders to prison who have never been to prison before, accounting for 25 percent of all admissions.”
According to the report, the average prison time for those convicted of drug and property crimes tripled between 1990 and 2010. In addition, the average probation sentence in Georgia is almost 7 years, twice the national average. That’s a huge investment with very little return, considering that the recidivism rate hasn’t budged in the last two decades.
Some of the changes proposed by the council are simple and common sense. Unlike many states, Georgia’s burglary statute treats a break-in of an unoccupied barn just as seriously as it treats a break-in to an occupied home at night. Creating a lesser category of second-degree burglary for unoccupied structures would reduce sentences, lower costs and more accurately reflect the severity of the crime.
Likewise, the threshhold for felony theft is $500, a level that hasn’t been changed in almost 30 years. Raising it to $1,500 to adjust for inflation would again serve the interest both of taxpayers and of justice.
Other changes are more complicated. As alternatives to prison time, the council recommends a more extensive — and expensive — system of drug courts, residential drug-addiction treatment centers, probation centers and community-based supervision, to be funded through savings generating by reducing prison time. (The Department of Corrections spends roughly $18,000 per inmate a year).
Traditionally, it has been difficult to sustain legislative support for financing such alternatives. But as the council stresses, such programs are essential if the larger reform effort is to succeed. The goal of the reform effort is not merely to cut prison time and thus cut spending. It is to cut prison time while enhancing both public safety and the cause of justice.
If we don’t adequately fund treatment programs and sentencing alternatives, that goal cannot be achieved, and we’ll soon be back to warehousing.