Deal said the legislation helps ensure that the state’s prison resources are reserved for “kingpins” while the “mules” are given a chance at reform.
Deal invited researchers from The Pew Charitable Trusts to provide data assistance on the reform work. One of those researchers, Adam Gelb, project director of the public safety performances project with Pew, was among those at the luncheon.
“Gov. Deal is leading a real sea change across the country in how we deal with crime and punishment,” Gelb said. “The bill he signed today acknowledges that there are much more effective, less expensive ways to deal with lower level offenders.”
Gelb said conservatives are increasingly recognizing that a huge, expensive prison system is not consistent with the principles of fiscal discipline and limited government.
“Conservatives and liberals are getting to the same policy destination on this issue now, but they’re getting there by very different routes,” Gelb said. “And while for conservatives it’s limited government and fiscal discipline and individual responsibility, and also a good bit of family preservation and victim restitution and those kinds of concerns, liberals are thinking much more about social and economic and racial justice.”
Regardless of how one reaches the conclusion, the fact is that research has now identified more effective, less expensive ways to deal with non-violent offenders, Gelb said, and Deal has become a believer in that new approach.
Giving judges more discretion
The bill restores judicial discretion by allowing a departure from mandatory minimum sentences in limited circumstances. As a result, Deal said judges now have the option to make more appropriate decisions in drug-related cases where the defendant is not the ringleader of the criminal enterprise, or in other cases where the prosecution, defense attorney and judge agree.
The legislation also creates the Georgia Criminal Justice Reform Commission. The commission will conduct periodic reviews of the juvenile justice system and criminal justice system to help ensure that they are effective in fulfilling their purposes.
The bill also contains provisions to keep communities safer by breaking the cycle of repeat offenders. Limited driving permits will now be available for issue to defendants and participants in a drug court or mental health court program, allowing them to get to school or work as long as they meet the program’s requirements. The legislation also permits individuals who have earned a HOPE GED voucher while incarcerated to use it within two years of release.
State Rep. Rich Golick (R-Smyrna), is the author of the legislation, HB 349.
“Gov. Deal’s ‘smart on crime’ vision on the issue of criminal justice reform will result in more state prison beds being occupied by violent criminals while creating more productive options for non-violent offenders, often drug offenders stuck in the death spiral of addiction,” Golick said. “Increased judicial discretion will ensure that sentences fit the crime, and local drug courts like the one we have in Cobb will receive more resources and tools to be successful. Gov. Deal’s leadership on this common sense conservative reform was the key ingredient in its success.”
Too many non-violent offenders locked up
Deal said when he became governor, he was concerned about a problem he was told Republicans should not concern themselves with, which was that Georgia, the 10th largest state population wise had the fourth largest prison population. The “war on drugs” and other “tough on crime” initiatives that began in the 1980s and continued through the early 2000s have, in hindsight, not achieved the desired results.
Locking up a person in the adult prison system costs more than $18,000 a year. And a substantial number of those being locked up are classified as non-violent offenders, Deal said.
There were a few examples of alternatives in the state. Those were accountability courts, such as DUI courts, drug courts, mental health courts and veterans courts. The purpose of these courts is to take non-violent offenders who have violated the law usually because of addiction issues, and who want a second chance and are willing to make the effort it takes to deserve that second chance, and give them that opportunity.
The Criminal Justice Reform Council, which worked prior to the 2012 legislative session, came back with recommendations for the adult criminal justice system which Deal signed into law. Deal said the measures will save the state from having to build additional prisons, an estimated $264 million in savings over a five-year span.
Deal said he has also put more than $12 million in the state budget to expand the accountability court system.
The high cost of juvenile detention
Yet another growing concern is playing out in the juvenile justice arena, he said.
“We are seeing more and more violent crimes being committed by individuals who are classified as juveniles, and yet we’re seeing our costs continue to rise,” Deal said.
While an adult prisoner costs the state about $18,000 a year, a juvenile costs about $90,000, Deal said.
And while one out of every three adults paroled from the prison system is back in the system within three years, it’s one out of every two for juveniles.
The Criminal Justice Reform Commission, which brought the adult side of the recommendations that was signed into law, has now brought the juvenile side of the recommendations, which Deal will sign into law next week.
Deal said it will save the state about $85 million over the next five years. Having once served as a juvenile court judge, Deal said one of his greatest frustrations was having only two choices in which to decide what to do with a juvenile who came before the court. They could be sent into a youth detention center or they could be sent back into the same high-risk environment from which they came.
“Neither of those, sometimes, were appropriate choices,” Deal said. “This approach is to say if they are not a danger to society then let’s form local community-based alternative services. And that’s what we’re doing.”