The Georgia House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee overwhelmingly adopted a proposal that would study sentencing reforms in hopes of offering alternative sentences for some drug addicts and other nonviolent offenders.
The panel voted 5-1 to adopt the measure, which is backed by leaders from all three branches of state government and both political parties as a way to slash the state's incarceration rate, which is the highest in the nation according to a study by the Pew Center on the States.
Georgia's high incarceration rate has troubling consequences. As Gov. Nathan Deal puts it, Georgia pays $3,800 each year to educate a child in public schools, and $18,000 every year to keep each inmate behind bars.
The governor mustered support from Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, House Speaker David Ralston and leaders of the judiciary, including Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Carol Hunstein, in support of the overhaul.
"You frankly cannot build enough prisons and you cannot run out of criminals," Hunstein said at a judicial meeting earlier this year. "The prison system is costing huge sums of money and is not necessarily keeping the population safer."
The measure sets up an 11-member council that would include members appointed by Deal, Ralston, Cagle and Hunstein. The panel is charged with conducting a thorough study of the state's criminal justice structure and reporting a series of conclusions to lawmakers by November.
It also would create a 17-member joint legislative committee, including lawmakers from both parties, that would be tasked with developing legislation from the recommendations and shepherding them to the floors of the House and Senate.
The proposal has been met with praise from both law-and-order groups and ardent critics of the criminal justice system.
"We have reached a critical juncture in our over-reliance on prisons as a solution for all of our problems," said Sara Totonchi, director of the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights. "This legislation is a wise and proactive step in remedying our addiction to incarceration."
State Rep. Rich Golick, the House committee's chairman, said he hopes the legislation will breeze through both chambers so it could soon land on Deal's desk.
"This is an issue whose time has come, and it's frankly overdue," said Golick, a Smyrna Republican.