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Revision to law allows inmates to serve last year at transitional centers

POSTED: May 13, 2009 11:30 p.m.

A new law will allow state inmates serving strict mandatory minimum sentences to complete the final year of their prison terms in work-release settings.

Proponents say the law, which goes into effect in July, is one of the first significant revisions to Georgia’s "Seven Deadly Sins" legislation, passed in 1995, that required offenders convicted of the most serious crimes to serve at least 10 years in prison with no chance of parole.

Because those inmates are not paroled and serve every day of their sentence behind bars in the "hard beds" of the general prison population, they find themselves being released with no continuing supervision and little preparation for the outside world, said State Sen. Johnny Grant, R–Milledgeville, a sponsor of the new legislation.

"Currently, on the day they’re released, we turn them loose with $25 and a bus ticket and tell them, ‘good luck,’" Grant said.

Sara Totonchi, a spokeswoman for the Southern Center for Human Rights, said giving inmates the chance to serve their final year in a transitional center instead of a standard prison setting should make the adjustment to freedom easier.

The Georgia Department of Corrections operates nine transitional centers that allow some 1,700 inmates to work jobs outside prison walls and return to the facility at night to sleep under guarded supervision.

Transitional centers were not an option for inmates sentenced under the "seven deadly sins" law until the state legislature passed Senate Bill 193 this year.

Those inmates, some who were imprisoned while in their teens, "went straight onto the streets with no oversight and no assistance," after completing their sentences, Totonchi said. "Folks who essentially have grown up in prison having never worked face enormous obstacles coming out."

According to Department of Corrections statistics, 7.6 percent of the state’s 53,000 prisoners never held a job before entering prison. More than a quarter of the state’s inmates "max out" their sentences by serving every day, with no probation to follow.

Not all inmates spend time in transitional centers before being released from prison. Department of Corrections officials determine who is best qualified for the centers based on their criminal history, behavior while incarcerated and other factors, according to the agency’s Web site.

Totonchi said allowing more inmates to participate in work release programs should reduce the number of convicts who end up committing new crimes after their release.

"It’s making the ‘tough on crime’ stance smarter," Totonchi said. "This (law) makes great strides in breaking the cycle of folks getting out and then doing something to wind up right back in prison."

Grant, the state lawmaker, hopes the law will have a fiscal benefit for the state by reducing recidivism.

"It behooves us, not only from a humanitarian standpoint, but also from a cost savings standpoint, to do everything in our power to keep them from re-offending," Grant said.

Georgia’s "Seven Deadly Sins" law remains among the toughest in the nation for violent offenders. Grant doesn’t see the latest revision as a softening of the law.

"They’re still going to have to serve the entirety of their sentence under the Department of Corrections supervision," he said. "For just this one year, they’re still in custody and they still go in a lockup every night, but it’s something that helps them make that transition to the outside world."



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