With incoming governor, it’s time for ‘New Deal’ in criminal justice
Georgia’s Governor-elect Nathan Deal has earned his stripes as a tough-as-nails prosecutor who rightly noted on the campaign trail that he put many rapists in prison where they belong. At the same time, prosecutors in Georgia and around the nation also see up close the many low-level, nonviolent offenders who cycle through the system.
In Texas, which is similarly known for its law and order approach, one impetus for the successful reforms over the last several years was the prosecutors and judges who told lawmakers that they were reluctantly sending many low-level, nonviolent offenders to prisons who were not a danger to public safety and could succeed in the right community corrections program. Their problem, they said, was that few of these alternatives to hold them accountable were actually available.
As Georgia’s leaders confront a budget shortfall, they can learn much from the “tough and smart” approach that Texas has taken.
Since Texas began its reforms to strengthen community-based supervision, sanctions and treatment options for nonviolent offenders in 2005 rather than build new prisons, the state has avoided more than $2 billion in projected prison costs. Most importantly, Texas has realized a 9 percent reduction in crime. In fact, the Texas crime rate in 2009 is at its lowest point since 1973.
Georgia’s criminal justice system is ripe for reform. In Georgia, about one adult in 13 is under some form of correctional control, either on probation or parole, or behind bars. This is the highest rate in the nation. The national average is one in 31. About one adult in 70 is behind bars in Georgia. The state spends more than $1 billion per year on housing approximately 60,000 inmates.
Corrections costs have grown fivefold since 1985. Longer sentences have driven Georgia’s prison growth. For instance, the average inmate released in 2009 on a drug possession charge spent 21 months locked up, compared with 10 months in 1990. Georgia has 8,969 inmates sentenced for a drug offense, which costs taxpayers $151 million per year.
Support is growing for an examination of ways to achieve a greater reduction in the crimes that most harm the public for every dollar spent. Georgia House Speaker David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge) recently said, “I think the dialogue has already started.”
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich co-authored a March 2010 op-ed in the Atlanta Journal Constitution that noted: “If two-thirds of public school students dropped out, or two-thirds of all bridges built collapsed within three years, would citizens tolerate it? The people of Georgia would never stand for that kind of failure. But that is exactly what is happening all across the United States in our prison systems.
“Last year, some 20,000 people were released from Georgia’s prisons to re-enter our communities. If trends of the past decade continue, two-thirds of them will be rearrested within three years. That failure rate is a clear and present threat to public safety. Not only is this revolving door a threat to public safety, but it results in an increasing burden on each and every taxpayer.”
Fortunately, there are many solutions that have worked in Texas and other jurisdictions. In fact, there is room to expand upon some of the community-based approaches that are already working in Georgia, such as drug courts and day reporting centers.
Georgia has 28 drug courts, where nonviolent offenders with a substance abuse problem are held directly accountable on an ongoing basis by a judge and required to attend treatment.
The state’s drug courts have a 12 percent recidivism rate, but they were cut in 2008 at the same time the prison system continued to receive more money. At the state’s 11 day reporting centers which state data indicate are reducing recidivism, offenders are required to learn a trade, work, and attend treatment if needed.
Finally, to address Gingrich’s concern about recidivism for inmates upon leaving Georgia’s lockups, solutions include improving parole supervision, such as the recent adoption in Texas of instant drug testing with immediate referrals to treatment and greater use of graduated sanctions and incentives to keep parolees in line, rather than let violations pile up that result in revocation to prison.
In 2009, Texas also recognized that a job is often the best recidivism-reduction program and enacted legislation enabling most ex-offenders to obtain provisional occupational licenses in many occupations.
As Georgia’s next generation of leaders take office pledging to enact reforms that promote more accountability and smaller government, the state’s criminal justice system is an ideal place to begin making corrections.
[Marc A. Levin, Esq. (firstname.lastname@example.org) Director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation (www.texaspolicy.com), wrote this for the Georgia Public Policy Foundation. The Texas Public Policy Foundation is a non-profit, free-market research institute based in Austin. The Georgia Public Policy Foundation is an independent think tank that proposes practical, market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians.]