Georgia Republicans prepare to change direction on crime

Inmates at Phillips State Prison make their way to the cafeteria. Vino Wong, vwong@ajc.com

Inmates at Phillips State Prison make their way to the cafeteria. Vino Wong, vwong@ajc.com

A new, hyphenated word is about to enter your political vocabulary. Say it with me: Over-criminalization.

For conservatives in particular, the word will introduce a concept both fresh and counter-intuitive — that the desire to mete out disproportionate punishment to some criminals, while highly satisfying and politically popular, is ultimately ineffective.

And not at all fiscally conservative.

Last week, the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform for Georgians released a report looking at the bill that has come due for doubling the state’s prison population.

It included a list of cost-cutting recommendations for the Legislature, which will return to Atlanta in January.

For most incumbent lawmakers in Georgia, whether Democratic or Republican, crime has always been a topic that required the gas pedal — never the brakes. Slamming jail cell doors makes for great TV ads.

Zell Miller showed us how it was done. In a 1994 drive for re-election as governor, he pushed through Georgia’s tough “two-strikes-and-you’re-out” law to lock away repeat violent offenders. “It was more expensive to leave those felons on the streets,” Miller said years later. “I think everybody deserves a second chance, but that’s all they deserve.”

Yet the Great Recession has caused us to put a price tag on even our most favorite reflexes. At the cost of more than $1 billion per year, one of every 70 adults in Georgia is now under some sort of state supervision — a higher rate than all but three other states. The federal average is one in 100.

“Yet despite this growth,” the report said, “Georgia taxpayers haven’t received a better public safety return on their corrections dollars. The recidivism rate has remained unchanged at nearly 30 percent throughout the past decade.”

Republicans who control the state Capitol are nervous about the coming change in direction. Reactions from Gov. Nathan Deal, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and House Speaker David Ralston have been encouraging, but cautious.

Within hours of the release of the justice reform report, Marc Levin, spokesman for a group called Right on Crime, embraced it. He also invoked the names of like-minded conservatives such as GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich; Ralph Reed, now head of the Faith and Freedom Coalition; Randy Hicks of the Georgia Family Council; and two former federal prosecutors — Joe Whitley and Larry Thompson.

At the top of the conservative reform list: Revamp state laws so that fewer drug and property offenders are given hard time. One possibility is “presumptive probation” for drug offenders — meaning that jail time would be the exception, not the rule.

Property crimes could be adjusted as well. Burglary of an empty tool shed, for instance, now carries the same penalty as breaking into an occupied home.

“As we continue to extend the length of sentences, we get into what we call over-criminalization,” said Kelly McCutchen, president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, which supports the reform effort. “I equate it to health care policy. We’ve got too many people going to the emergency room. Prisons are the emergency room. They’re very, very, very expensive, and it’s not right for everybody.”

There must be a cheaper, more efficient way to handle a probationer caught with a forbidden beer in his refrigerator — other than to send him back to behind the razor wire to finish out his term, McCutchen said.

The trail Georgia intends to follow was blazed by Texas in 2007, which should be of some comfort to Republicans. “Culturally, Texas is a good model for us. If this were Massachusetts or New York, it would be a tougher sell,” McCutchen said.

Look for the Legislature to start with small, non-controversial steps. Drug courts to allow judges to focus on addiction and treatment. “Earned compliance credit” for probationers and those on parole — none dare call it “good behavior” — that would reduce supervision by 20 days for each month an offender behaves himself.

Georgia currently keeps offenders on parole and probation twice as long as the national average.

Some balance-of-power issues could surface. Reform recommendations also include giving judges back some of the discretion that the Legislature took away when it decreed “mandatory-minimum” sentences for certain crimes.

But there are places legislators dare not go. “We would get in real deep trouble if we started looking at sentences for violent felonies,” McCutchen said. In the next breath, he spoke of the money that could be saved if sentences for armed robbery were shaved ever so slightly, from 17 years to 15 years. “That would probably get some push-back,” he admitted.

- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider

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40 comments Add your comment

Redcoat

November 23rd, 2011
1:42 pm

Meanwhile…………12 former Brooks County officials were indicted for voter fraud. The suspects are accused of illegally helping people vote by absentee ballot. I wonder what party these folks might be partial toward? DannyX should know he knows everything.

Redcoat

November 23rd, 2011
1:46 pm

Have been trying to find more info about this on the ajc site, but no luck yet.

Redcoat

November 23rd, 2011
1:48 pm

Anyway…..Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

CobbGOPer

November 23rd, 2011
1:55 pm

How about de-criminalizing marijuana? How much money do we spend year after year arresting people for simple possession, prosecuting them, putting them on probation, and/or jailing them? Be reasonable: write offenders a ticket and move on. I wager we could save at least $10 million if not much, much more in taxpayer dollars just by doing this one thing. And we could free up police forces to focus on serious crimes.

Romegaguy

November 23rd, 2011
2:09 pm

Next year’s elections will re-introduce us to the phrase “soft on crime”

bill

November 23rd, 2011
2:22 pm

The department of corrections uniforms (pictured above) are nice, but personally I preferred the ones with stripes. I understand they were done away with because the horizontal stripes made the “plus size” prisoners feel uncomfortable. Taking all things into consideration, maybe we should offer prisoners an option. Who knows, there may be some petite offenders with a desire to make a more fashionable statement. Either way, I think we can all agree that the new cap (white with navy bill) goes well with both the horizontal and vertical stripped uniform. Take care all and have a Happy Thanksgiving!

Jon

November 23rd, 2011
2:23 pm

Basically, this will get some early traction with the Legislature, but then they’ll all realize that they have to run for re-election and that will be the end of that.

bill

November 23rd, 2011
2:25 pm

Correction, after looking at the photo once more, I see the cap actually has a navy ban around the bottom of the crown while the upper portion is white. The bill is certainly navy with no contrasting colors. Sharp is all I have to say!

td

November 23rd, 2011
2:36 pm

If we gave lesser sentences but with hard labor attached to those sentences then I bet we could save money and not have as high a recidivism rate.

Danny O

November 23rd, 2011
2:44 pm

I’d like to offer an early pat on the back for any elected politician that is willing to publicly discuss sensible sentencing reform. This takes some courage, as it’s very easy for opponents to turn any comment or vote into a negative campaign mailer.

I agree w/CobbGOPer that prison sentences for marijuana use and possession is a waste of state money. I’d love to see a fiscal note on how much decriminalization would cut out of the state budget.

findog

November 23rd, 2011
3:01 pm

They need to make room for all those farmers and carpet/chicken plant foremen we’re going to jail for hiring them Mexicans that’s been stealing our jobs

findog

November 23rd, 2011
3:06 pm

Balance of powers: let the judge have discretion in sentencing, its why they’re called “judges”

Lee

November 23rd, 2011
3:10 pm

Several years ago, my shop was burglarized and the thieves made off with about $7000 worth of tools and equipment. Police came, walked through the shop, and told me the report would be ready in three days “for my insurance”. No fingerprints or anything.

How hard would it have been to take two minutes to see if they could have lifted a fingerprint from the door handle? A dollar to a donut whoever did this has had a previous history with law enforcement.

Roll through a STOP sign, that’s a $115 fine. Do a little investigation would take a few minutes away from that important roadside revenue generation work, I guess.

Anyway, I agree with the above posters who think certain crimes, such as marijuana possession, should be de-criminalized.

Lastly, I think all revenue generated by fines should be remitted to the state. Locals should not get any revenues from this source.

Travis McGee

November 23rd, 2011
3:23 pm

It’s embarrassing the way these ol’ boys pander to an ill-informed populace. Panderers and hypocrites — one and all!

Independent voter

November 23rd, 2011
3:34 pm

The republican party need to focus on JOBS not jailbird people need jobs not telling us how you guys going to run jails.

jconservative

November 23rd, 2011
3:41 pm

I hear that the real reason for this push is to free up jail space so they can lock up illegal immigrants.

sheepdawg

November 23rd, 2011
3:54 pm

just do the right thing without worring about how the decision impacts chances for being re-elected by an ignorant electorate!!!!!! damnit!!!!!

td

November 23rd, 2011
4:06 pm

sheepdawg

November 23rd, 2011
3:54 pm

And what is the right thing?

Smoke

November 23rd, 2011
4:18 pm

Dixiecrats have cost GA taxpayers billions, ruined thousands of lives on another long running political stunt, and now have the nerve to now call themselves Republicans.

Real Athens

November 23rd, 2011
4:19 pm

One out of 32 Americans are currently under correctional supervision. That is 6.7 Million in prison, on parole or probation.

Are we are the wickedest nation of people on Earth? Or, is something terribly wrong with our system of justice and idea of “rehabilitation”. All of the above?

This is a discussion (one of many) this country needs to have.

Bob

November 23rd, 2011
4:42 pm

@Real Athens…you answered your own question. Our judicial system is a joke. Most judges are bad lawyers (excuse the oxymoron) that are “eased” our of their practices rather than being fired. And rarely does the punishment come close to fitting the crime. Most people would not be surprized that over 90% of the criminals are multiple offenders. Maybe we should reconsider penal island colonies…just my opinion. And, hope Clarke County is as fun as it was when I was at the best University in the world.

Real Athens

November 23rd, 2011
4:51 pm

Bob:

If the Normaltown Flyers pre-Thanksgiving Show (now at the Melting Point instead of Allen’s) is any indication — than yes it is.

Bob

November 23rd, 2011
4:53 pm

Thanks Athens…and please tell Allen’s I meant to pay that tab; however, I was overcome with burgers and ice cold, draft beer. Happy Thanksgiving.

Frederick Douglass

November 23rd, 2011
5:35 pm

Real Athens

Whatever happened to Little Willie’s barbecue joint in Normaltown?

Paddy O

November 23rd, 2011
5:39 pm

This is a wise move. Simple possession of a drug desired for consumption should get you a FINE; not jail time. If you have enough to sell, that might get you 6 months of jail, plus tax evasion charges. Possession of personal use should be treated as we treat a speeding ticket. Convict & fine, and let any would be employer discover it on your record when you are subject to a background check. HOwever, use with a minor present would probably net a 2 year sentence, or additional contributing to the delinquincy of a minor charge. Violent crime however, armed or with crow bar, needs to be maxed up. Recidivism is rampant DUE TO THE INDIVIDUAL WHO CHRONICALLY COMMITS CRIME HAVING A FLAWED CHARACTER. No amount of “treatment” will help, so the recidivism is NOT a major policy problem.

Paddy O

November 23rd, 2011
5:40 pm

I’ve lived in Athens. Only those who don’t travel outside of GA would call UGA the best, at anything except recruiting anal sphinctors as students.

Real Athens

November 23rd, 2011
5:42 pm

Are you referring to Walter’s Barbecue that was on Broad St.? I don’t recall a BBQ joint in the block of Prince known as Normaltown.

Walter Rittenberry (of Walter’s) until very recently was the night cook at Huddle House on Prince.

mountain man

November 23rd, 2011
5:48 pm

Go read the story about the burglar who left his car running, the keys in the ignition and his wallet on the seat. Homeowner comes home, takes his keys and wallet. He flees on foot. They are looking for him now. He was on parole for a previous burglary conviction when he committed this burglary. When are we going to learn and put people away for some serious time (at hard labor). Make punishment a punishment.

clem

November 23rd, 2011
5:49 pm

we have been thru this same issue so many times before, it was repubs who objected to it before…now shoe on the other foot.

everyone, have a good thanksgiving

mountain man

November 23rd, 2011
5:50 pm

“Simple possession of a drug desired for consumption should get you a FINE; not jail time”

Depends on where the druggie got the money to buy the drugs. Usually they steal it.

mountain man

November 23rd, 2011
5:55 pm

we have gotten where a “mere” burglary is not cause for an investigation or any serious time. After all, it is not a murder or rape or armed robbery. So no serious time, the perp gets out and commits the same crime. Recidivism.

Too bad we don;t just cut off the left hand for the first offence, the right hand for the second, and for the third…hmmm.

DannyX

November 23rd, 2011
6:42 pm

“Too bad we don;t just cut off the left hand for the first offence, the right hand for the second, and for the third…hmmm.”

This is America, if you want to live in a Sharia law country you best move to a Muslim country.

Saudi Arabian Airlines is ready when you are.

mehlman rings twice

November 23rd, 2011
6:54 pm

Because of a free and active media, people are realizing that the free pass previously awarded to the protected class (Strom Thurmond, Jeb Bush’s business associates, Barbie Bandits, Judge Jack Camp, and Jerry Sandusky) proved to be more harmful to the general public than the overcriminalization (actually rabid fear) ginned up by the fake law and order crowd over victimless crimes committed by brown-skinned minorities.

Bigdawg

November 23rd, 2011
7:18 pm

“Culturally, Texas is a good model for us…” What a bunch of horsesh!#!! I saw this coming back when Zig-Zag Zell was guv’ner! I saw this coming when we started for-profit prisons. They don’t want rehabilitated criminals, they’d go out of business. Keep ‘em angry and hateful and you’ll have a full house for all time!
Nathan “Raw” Deal is a crook of the first order, but don’t you dare smoke a joint or you’ll be put away!

Bigdawg

November 23rd, 2011
7:22 pm

mehlman…word!

Shine

November 23rd, 2011
7:58 pm

Stealing my 1500 dollar lawn mower, 200 chainsaw, and 1000 dollars of tools out my shed aint as bad as stealing my 1200 tv, 300 stereo, and 1000 dollars worth of jewelry? Yes, Republicans are kooks!!

Tomkat

November 23rd, 2011
8:16 pm

Let’s me kick y’all some knowledge about Ga Dept of Corrections. They receive over 1.1 Billion dollars each year to run State Prisons and probation. Only 13% goes to Probation. However, they deal with 3/4 of all people under sentence in Ga. If they would increase speeding on “the front end” they would not be in this problem. Brian Owen’s is clueless on how to run a State agency! Less we not forget the 55million boondoggle at the Tift College, now talked State Offices South. (SOS, funny stuff) DOC has so much upper management it’s not even funny. More on this to come.

Saywona

November 23rd, 2011
8:25 pm

The real shame is that it’s taking a financial crisis, rather than morality and good sense, to force the State into backing away from over-criminalization. Way too many Georgians are incarcerated for petty offenses. Give those people the option of picking crops in South Georgia versus going to the slam.

Matt Dillion

November 23rd, 2011
8:27 pm

rudikkingme

November 23rd, 2011
8:38 pm

I could solve the crime problem in five years. I could solve the prison problem. I could solve the entire justice system’s problem.

I could easily do all of that. I know exactly what we must do to stop crime. I would give it away if someone asked real nice like.

Go ‘head. Make your day.