Georgia steps in the right direction

Gov. Nathan Deal

by Lisa D’Souza

In November 2011, a special council appointed by Georgia’s Governor, Nathan Deal, released its Report of the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform for Georgians.  This report has resulted in reform proposals that the Georgia legislature will soon consider.
While it is heartening that Georgia has recognized its incarceration rates as a problem the report, and the resulting reform proposals, failed to consider input from the communities most affected by mass incarceration and ignore relevant factors, for example treating addiction as a crime instead of a medical problem.

The Atlanta Progressive News article below has a comprehensive summary of the report’s recommendations as well as criticisms of its shortcomings.

Congratulations, Georgia, for taking this step in the right direction.  We can only hope it is the first of many.

Georgia Considers Reforms to Reduce Prison Population, Costs

by GLORIA TATUM

With additional reporting on the Special Council’s recommendations by Matthew Cardinale.

(APN) ATLANTA — This year, the Georgia Legislature is expected to begin considering a package of reforms intended to reduce the state’s prison population as well as the enormous costs to taxpayers that Georgia’s mass incarceration policies have caused year after year.

The Report of the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform for Georgians finished its findings and recommendations for the state legislature on Friday, November 18, 2011.  Shortly after his inauguration in January 2011, Gov. Deal had called for prison reform, and the legislature created the Special Council to research the issue.

Gov. Nathan Deal appointed the thirteen members of the Special Council from Governor’s office, the State Senate, State House, and the Judicial Branch.  Appointees included State Sens. John Crosby (R-Tifton), Bill Hamrick (R-Carrollton), and Ronald Ramsey (D-Decatur); State Reps. Mary Margaret Oliver (D-Decatur), Jay Powell (R-Camilla), and Willie Talton (R-Warner Robins); Chief Justice Carol Hunstein of the Supreme Court of Georgia; Waycross Superior Court Judge Michael Boggs, who now serves on the Court of Appeals of Georgia; Fulton County Superior Court Judges Ural Glanville and Todd Markle; Linda Evans, member of the Judicial Qualifications Commission; David McCade, Douglas County District Attorney; and Ken Shigley, President of the Georgia State Bar.

The Governor named the Pew Charitable Trust and Applied Research Services as its consultants.

Georgia has the fourth highest rate of adults behind bars in the country.  One of every seventy adult Georgians are in jail, compared to the national rate of one in one hundred according to the Governor’s 2011 Report of the Special Council.

The US has the highest incarceration rate in the world.  While the US only represents about five percent of the world’s population, one-quarter of the entire world’s inmates are incarcerated in the US.  That essentially puts Georgia near the top of the list for incarcerations worldwide.

Georgia’s antiquated and draconian marijuana prohibition laws are responsible for a large percentage of people in jail.

“The war on drugs has failed miserably.  We have casualties from this war filling homeless shelters, jails, and graveyards, as victim after victim is disenfranchised and denied any hope for a living wage,” Denise Woodall, a PhD student in Criminology at the University of Miami who was formerly incarcerated, told Atlanta Progressive News.

Currently the State spends more than one billion dollars annually on corrections, and this number keeps going up each year.

The data shows most individuals sentenced to prison are drug and property offenders and they are staying behind bars for longer periods of time.  These offenders represent almost sixty percent of all people incarcerated.  Many of these people are identified as lower-risk and are less likely to re-offend.

“They are saying [in the report] that there is no issue of public safety with these people; furthermore, they are admitting that they need help not incarceration,” Woodall said.

The Special Council report claims to have solicited input from a wide range of stakeholders; however, some take issue with that.

The Special Council “does not intend to seek public input from anybody outside the parties it has already recognized as ‘stakeholders’… associations of judges, prosecutors, and sheriffs, with maybe a token defense attorney thrown in, Democratic and Republican legislators, and local chambers of commerce,” Bruce Dixon wrote in the Black Agenda Report, an online publication.

The inmates and family members are the real stakeholders and their opinions and recommendations are not represented in the Special Council’s report.

The three goals of the report are, first, to address the growth of the State’s prison population and contain corrections cost while improving offender management.  Second, to reinvest a portion of the savings into strategies that reduce crime and recidivism.  And third, to hold offenders accountable by strengthening community-based supervision, sanctions, and services.

“How do you reform the ‘criminal justice system’ without acknowledging systematic torture, endemic corruption, pervasive racial and class bias, the failure of the war on drugs, and the massive economic and social devastation it wreaks upon entire communities?” Dixon wrote.  “The answer is, you don’t.”

However, as valid as these criticisms may be, the report makes several recommendations that are substantive and could produce meaningful results.

“Despite [the] growth in prison population and spending, Georgia taxpayers haven’t received a better return on their corrections dollars. The recidivism rate—the proportion of inmates who are reconvicted within three years of release—has remained unchanged, hovering just shy of 30 percent throughout the past decade,” the report notes.

If nothing is changed, the State will have to spend 264 million dollars over the next five years to increase prison capacity.

“Ensuring that there is enough prison space for violent, career criminals is essential to protecting public safety,” the report notes.

“The Council determined that prison growth cannot simply be explained by an increase in crime… The Council’s analysis revealed that inmate population growth is due in large part to policy decisions about who is being sent to prison and for how long,” the report states.

“Further, services and programs to which officers refer offenders are either insufficient or unavailable in many areas of the state.  Research makes clear that evidence-based interventions can reduce recidivism among medium- and high-risk offenders.  However, Georgia struggles with limited services and programs in the community, notably for substance abuse and mental health services.  Currently, there are only 33 drug courts in the state, covering less than 50 percent of the state’s counties and serving fewer than 3,000 offenders.  In addition, there are only 13 Day Reporting Centers (DRC), which are community-based supervision and service centers that handle between 80 and 120 offenders per center.  The state operates just three
probation substance abuse treatment centers which provide residential treatment for 800 offenders on probation with serious substance abuse problems,” the report notes.

“The lack of community-based options not only constrains probation officers, it limits sentencing options available to judges. Insufficient alternatives in the community can result in judges sending lower-risk offenders to prison simply to get them into treatment or some other program,”
the report states.

Among the main recommendations, first, the report recommends increasing state funding for what are called accountability courts, including drug courts, mental health courts, veterans’ courts, and others.

Second, the report recommends that the State increase residential substance abuse treatment programs (RSATs) and DRCs.

Third, the report recommends using evidence-based strategies to reduce recidivism.

Fourth, it recommends creating ten pilot programs to allow local agencies to take the lead on reducing recidivism.

Fifth, it recommends ensuring that inmates who max out their sentence, be released under supervision such as six months of probation, instead of just releasing them with no supervision.

Sixth, it recommends ensuring that offenders are not on probation and parole on the same time, although the State lacks data on how many people are impacted by this.

Seventh, it recommends giving twenty day compliance credits per month to those on probation or parole who make progress towards their case goals and who do not commit new crimes.

Eighth, it recommends reducing offenders’ prison sentences by up to a year if they participate in risk reduction or work programs.

Ninth, it recommends a process for allowing 50,000 probationers on administrative or unsupervised probation to petition the court to end their probation; this could save the State additional money.

Tenth, it recommends capping sentences at Probation Detention Centers, where the average stay is 183 days, well over the sixty to 120 day stays originally intended.

Eleventh, it recommends creating a Criminal Justice Reform Oversight Council.

Twelvth, it recommends improving electronic criminal justice information systems.

Thirteenth, it recommends auditing prisons for their compliance with State mandates to create case plans for inmates, to ensure the plans are consistently recorded, and to link case plans to risk assessments.

Fourteenth, it recommends requiring prisons and agencies to track their performance with regards to “measures of outcomes in key performance areas and report yearly to the Oversight Council on key performance measures such as recidivism, employment, substance use, payment of victim restitution, compliance with ‘no contact’ orders, and the overall performance of supervised individuals.”

Fifteenth, it recommends changing the thresholds for what crimes qualify for prison time.  For example, it recommends increasing the theft threshold from five hundred to 1,500 dollars; increasing the burglary threshold from three hundred to 750 dollars; and increasing the bad check threshold from five hundred to 1,500 dollars.

It also recommends reducing minimum sentences and to expand risk reduction options for those convicted of drug trafficking crimes.  It recommends developing a simple drug possession offense based on weight, and a presumption of probation for drug offenders.

And it recommends reducing minor traffic violations from a misdemeanor to a violation, requiring fines that would be tied to the renewal of one’s driver’s license.  A DUI charge would not be included in this category.

People in prison do not get the help they need to not return.  They lack access to educational classes, substance abuse treatment, mental health counseling, or job training that would prepare them for success once released.

“Deal’s criminal justice reform ignores larger issues around the for-profit prison-industrial complex and strives to maintain keeping return customers by keeping those who come in contact with the criminal injustice system [as] return customers by preventing them from obtaining food, shelter, and employment,”  Woodall said.

In a depressed job market like today it is almost impossible for a person with a criminal record to get a job or housing.  These obstacles alone can create stress and poverty that cause many ex-inmates and especially addicts to land back in the revolving-door prison system.

In 2010, Georgia courts sent more than five thousand lower-risk drug and property offenders to prison who have never been to prison before, accounting for twenty-five percent of all admission last year, the report states.

As of 2010, there were more than 156,000 felony probationers and 22,000 parolees being supervised in Georgia communities.

Other options, not considered by the Special Council, would be to reduce the prison population and to cut costs by repealing the prohibition of marijuana in Georgia.   Not only would legalizing marijuana cut the prison population; it would also boost the economy and put the Mexican drug cartels out of business.

Addiction is a brain chemical problem, not a criminal justice problem.  To end addictions to dangerous drugs like crack cocaine, heroin, and meth, the legislators might also consider legalizing medical Ibogaine Clinics in Georgia.

Ibogaine is an isolated active ingredient from the root bark of the central west African shrub, Tabernanthe iboga.  According to a recent program on the National Geographic channel, Ibogaine clinics, which are legal in other countries including Canada, prove quite effective in
closing the brain receptors that are craving drugs.  However, use of ibogaine also poses some health risks and is not appropriate for everyone.

“What will actually help to solve our ‘crime’ problem is changing the system within which this torture chamber of incarceration lies… working on constructing a new society, one that values people over profit, then we’ll start to see justice,” Woodall said.

Chief Justice Hunstein, meanwhile, praised the report as an unprecedented collaboration of all three branches of government to address prison reform issues in Georgia.

“Georgia has a rich history of being tough on crime. This state did not just settle for a ‘three strikes, you’re out’ law. In 1994, we became the first in the country to pass a ‘two strikes, you’re out’ law. As a government, we must continue in our zeal to protect our citizens from violent and repeat offenders. Murderers, rapists, armed robbers and other violent felons deserve stiff prison sentences. No one suggests otherwise,” Hunstein wrote.

“But if we truly want to be tough on crime, we must figure out how to reduce it. We now know that being tough on crime is not enough. We must also be smart about crime and criminal justice policy. If we simply throw low-risk offenders into prison, rather than holding them accountable for their wrongdoing while addressing the source of their criminal behavior, they merely become hardened criminals who are more likely to reoffend when they are released. The bottom line is that all those mandatory minimum sentences and get-tough prison measures did little to reduce our reconviction rate,” she wrote.

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