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